Blade Runner: Grass and Our Future

October 15, 2021   •   By Louise L. Schiavone

IN THE SUMMER of 1855, American poet Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass, and in the poem “Song of Myself,” included in it, he writes, “A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands.” Whitman’s reply: “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.”

Leaves of grass in all their variety are now a piece of the complex puzzle that might hold off carbon overload and further climate devastation. It’s true of the seagrasses that live under water, of the many grains cultivated on hundreds of millions of acres of American land, and even of grasses in backyards and playing fields.

But in our period of record heat, thousands of acres of moist grasses and cooling forests have been burned to a crisp, and as the atmosphere and land swelter, the ocean is warming too, in some cases cooking shellfish and other marine life in their own habitat. The losses are dramatic, as are the solutions.

Enter the “imagineers,” the scientists and biologists obsessed with grasses, and the consumers and businesspeople who are supporting them.

Grasses

If you’ve ever lazed on a cool green stretch of grass, peeling off the layers of long shoots, you’ve seen the spear of seeds from which many more blades of grass are born. “Barley, wheat, rye — they’re all grasses. They’re called ‘cool season.’ One way to describe them is a ‘cool season grass’ and they’re small-seeded,” explains Steve Jones, professor of Crop and Soil Sciences at Washington State University. “Corn’s a grass too,” he adds, which, of course when you contemplate it is obvious, but — who knew?!

Steve Jones is a world-renowned grain geneticist and the energy behind “The Bread Lab” in Washington’s lush Skagit Valley. Standing at 6’5” and self-described as one of the last “hippies,” the gray-bearded Jones has an easy smile. If you ever needed to know anything about grain farming, including its varieties, uses, and the place of grains not only in the ecosystem, but also in society at large, then Jones is your man. His Polish ancestors, immigrants to New York and New Jersey at the turn of the 20th century, were in the bakery business, and he has been on a lifelong quest for grains that taste good.

In 2007, The New York Times examined his laboratory research aimed at developing perennial wheat. Grasses of all kinds, including wheat, have the capacity to trap carbon particles in their fronds and pull that carbon into the earth. A wheat plant that will come back year after year promises not only soil conservation, but also continued carbon burial. The goal of a perennial wheat would be to minimize annual plantings, which not only stir up the soil, but also the carbon previously sequestered there by the plant.

Although it suffers from the stresses of excessive heat and drought and what Jones calls “climate chaos,” agriculture in general also has a distinct role to play in soothing the burn of an overheated atmosphere. One study estimates that cover crops, which are basically placeholders on agricultural land to maintain soil quality and robust plant life, make a surprisingly significant contribution. A 2015 report from a US Department of Agriculture–supported program called “SARE” — “Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education” — determined that “cover crops have the potential to sequester approximately 60 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent per year when planted across 20 million acres (8.1 million hectares), offsetting the emissions from 12.8 million passenger vehicles.”

Bread

It’s no exaggeration that the wide-open spaces, majestic mountains and volcanoes, and pristine water derived from the Cascade snow melt make the northwest tip of Washington State enchanting. But it would be wrong to say that the people of this region are not worriedly looking over their shoulders, wondering, for example, in the warm, dry summer of 2021, when it will rain next and how the unusual soil-crackling heat in the ordinarily cool Pacific Northwest will affect their crops and livelihoods. Like everyone in agriculture, they live at the knife’s edge of climate change.

Jones is confident that their choices can make a difference. His back-to-variety, back-to-nature approach to wheat and barley cultivation is not the stuff of Monsanto commodity exchange windfalls. In fact, 11 years ago, bound by a belief that giant agribusiness has no right to tie the hands of farmers developing their own varieties, Jones walked away from a lucrative deal that would have involved his helping to engineer Monsanto grains able to withstand a blast of Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer.

It was a personally defining moment. “My job was to breed as much white flour per acre as I could,” said Jones. “I don’t like white flour.” He had had enough of the commodity grains market with its checkerboard plots, monochromatic white flour, fiber-free, flavorless, nutrition-drained final products.

And even beyond that, he says, on a rapidly warming planet, seeding fields with uniform grains is an invitation to disaster. A temperature of 85 degrees Fahrenheit is the breaking point for wheat and barley plants. As the hot, dry summer of 2021 began to wind down, the US Department of Agriculture estimated that spring wheat production was down 41 percent from 2020 and durum output was forecast to be 50 percent lower than the year before. In the Pacific Northwest specifically, grain yields were down 25 to 50 percent, due primarily to the uncommon heat and drought.

“We need to feed ourselves while we get through this,” says Jones, “and, to do that, we better have variations in the field, which we don’t have. If you look at the country, there’s a hundred million acres of corn, right in the middle of it. Besides growers putting too much into these fields and destroying the environment, it’s all basically the same stuff. The same with wheat — another 40 million acres.”

In 2009, fueled by these convictions, Jones wound up far from the center of Washington State University’s main campus. Seeing his mission at that point as advancing local agriculture, he forged an alliance with the Skagit Valley’s farmers, becoming a bit of a folk hero in parts of the community. The Bread Lab, a 12,000-square foot deep dive into grains and baking, would be his hub, but first he had to work outside the box to build it.

“Because we’re [removed from] any conventional kind of mainstream,” says Jones, “financial support has to come from unconventional sources, like Patagonia, Westland Distillery, King Arthur Flour, even Clif Bar in the past. These are people who support us and the notion that we will do novel things with our grain varieties. As opposed to a grower group saying, ‘Here’s what we want, this is what Cargill and ADM want, here’s what the industry needs — this will make Big Mac buns and Twinkies.’ So if we’re out of that completely, we’re not getting funding from the university for that type of work beside my salary, and that’s where these people come in.”

Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates pitched in a little, recounting his 2017 visit in “The bread lab in my backyard.” Bill Nye of The Science Guy fame also was an early supporter, as was American poet Wendell Berry, who famously said that “eating is an agricultural act.”

In both the lab and field, Jones and his team concentrate on flavor, nutrition, and novelty: “All the things that are not valued or even tolerated in a commodity system,” says Jones.

He presides over 20 research acres of wheat and barley plots, trying out literally tens of thousands of strains to see what thrives in what conditions. “We work on populations, not varieties,” he explains. “In the state of Kansas, there might be 10 million acres of wheat and four or five varieties. Each one is genetically very similar. Our strategy is, don’t take a million acres and make one variety. Make one variety on one acre and make it a million times.”

Jones has been approached to participate in carbon offset arrangements, which permit businesses to cancel out their greenhouse gas emissions with investment in carbon-mitigating farming, in this case wheat and barley fields. Amid the ravages of climate chaos — heat, drought, floods, infestations, famine — Jones finds the idea ludicrous. He’s doing the work either way and sees carbon offset credits as an ultimately destructive free pass for people who aren’t serious about making the sacrifices necessary to reverse environmental damage. “A few carbon credits here and there for the big people, that’s not gonna fix anything, ever,” he says.

Meanwhile, the perennial wheat that Jones and his team have been cultivating for the past 13 years or more is enjoying a eureka moment. In the spirit of the Bread Lab’s defense of the land, it’s been named “Salish Blue.” The Salish tribes are indigenous to the Puget Sound region, and the “Blue” in the grain name reflects the coastal waters. Salish history tells the story of how mindless and brutal expansion crushed both environment and people. The naming of the perennial grain is an act of solidarity with Native Americans and their struggles to preserve the health and abundance of their lands. The development of the perennial wheat is itself potentially revolutionary. “We have 40 acres of it in production right now,” says Jones. It’s a large-seeded blue wheat that Jones says is rich in nutrition and flavor. The strain is not on the market yet, but his group is scaling up volume.

Whiskey

This “can-do,” “buck-the-establishment” approach makes Steve Jones something of a Pied Piper among younger people who aspire to his accomplishments in making agriculture sustainable. Perhaps none is more inspired than Matt Hofmann, cofounder and managing director of Seattle’s Westland Distillery.

By his own account, Hofmann was inexplicably driven as a teenager to explore two things: whiskey-making and flavors, which led him to a postgraduate diploma in distilling from the International Centre of Brewing and Distilling at Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. Ten years ago, at the age of 22, he and a friend founded Westland Distillery, an American single malt whiskey brand whose range of products sell between $60 and $150. Four years ago, Paris-based international drinks conglomerate Rémy Cointreau acquired Westland for a price reportedly in the several tens of millions. Today it’s a sprawling and polished operation in the heart of Seattle, just a few blocks away from Starbucks’s headquarters. The decor is rugged wood details and glass, and when you walk into the building you are overpowered by the delicious smells of whiskey-making: the yeast, barley, and fragrant spirits.

Where Scotland’s premier whiskies draw from their own individual springs, Westland Distillery Whiskey is made from Seattle tap water, which Hofmann hastens to note is a nationally top-rated municipal water derived from mountain snow melt and the Cedar River watershed. Hofmann wants to add to that brew the Bread Lab’s rugged, unpredictable varieties of barley that both support the environment and bring unique flavor to his final product. He hopes to buy more and more of them to create his single malts.

“We’re working with Steve Jones to develop an alternative to the existing dominant agricultural system in the United States,” says Hofmann. “There is widespread recognition that there must be a better way to do things, a system that doesn’t financially trap farmers, contribute to further destruction of our environment, and give us bland, industrial food. What we’re developing with the team at the Bread Lab gives us previously unachievable possibilities in whiskey: economic viability for our rural communities, low-environmental impact agriculture, and diverse flavors.”

If you visit Hofmann and his distillery to learn about the Westland brand, he will personally drive you hundreds of miles to see for yourself what green agriculture and clean air and water look like. For him, it’s all part of the big picture. “The most exciting thing is that it’s much bigger than just whiskey; it demonstrates a better system for how all Americans can interact with the food and beverages they love and the agriculture that provides it.”

Sequestration, blue carbon-style

As poet Anne Stevenson once wrote, “The sea is as close as we come to another world.” About 2,900 miles to the east of Seattle, in the state of Virginia’s Atlantic Ocean bed, a different kind of grass is generating a lot of excitement. Like its cousins barley and wheat, it holds out the promise of doing its part to mitigate against greenhouse gases and global warming. Unlike its terrestrial relatives, this grass begins underwater and carries the very buzzy title of “blue carbon” ecosystem.

At 9,500 acres strong, this still-expanding meadow of eelgrasses is poised to become the world’s first sea-grass-based carbon credit program.

What makes the grasses lovely is how they sway gently in the ocean, their fronds reaching toward the sunlight just above the water’s surface, glittering green and providing hiding places for fresh young marine life while also providing a buffer against heavy weather and underwater soil erosion. What makes them extraordinary is that they were coaxed into life by scientists almost 70 years after they were wiped out by the one-two punch of a sea grass pandemic and major storms.

They live in the coastal bays adjacent to 14 barrier islands that occupy a significant stretch of Virginia’s Atlantic Coast. The islands, combined with nearby land holdings and seaside farms, stretch across 40,000 acres, and are owned either wholly or partially by the muscular environmental lobby group The Nature Conservancy. This is the group that brought its considerable power of persuasion to bear on Virginia’s General Assembly in 2020 to create and approve a law permitting the sale of carbon credits based on restoration of sub-aquatic plants, of which eelgrasses are the most common.

Scientists and advocates from three main entities have been breathing fresh, green life into what, over decades, had become a barren, muddy ocean floor. The College of William and Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) instigated the first eelgrass plantings around 20 years ago and it monitors their progress through a variety of techniques, including regular aerial surveys. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) participated in seed collection and cultivation. The third entity is the University of Virginia and its Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center, whose long-term carbon data-monitoring has made it possible to quantify and eventually sell these blue carbon credits.

Christopher Patrick, director of the VIMS seagrass restoration and monitoring program, says there’s been an explosion in marine biodiversity thanks to the meadows, which have the effect of oxygenating and clearing the water. Flourishing in the refreshed environment are white fish, anchovies, seahorses, black sea bass juveniles, American eel, Atlantic croaker, summer flounder. “These are all the babies,” says Patrick. “It’s a foundation habitat. It’s right up there with coral reefs, mangroves, and oyster reefs. These are all foundation habitats that change the system for the better.”

How does “carbon capture” work among the eelgrasses? Bo Lusk, a scientist at TNC’s Virginia Coast Reserve, has most likely explained this about a thousand times. A native of the region who grew up helping his dad with the family clam business, Lusk’s enthusiasm is infectious. One sparkling day, he gave me a personal tour aboard a light skiff and described how the grasses work. “The eelgrasses capture particles out of the water column, little bits of dust that you would see floating by, organic things with carbon in them. As the water flows through the seagrass canopy, the current is slowed and particles fall to the floor and sediment gets buried at the roots. That’s happening all day long over a huge area.”

TNC’s Coastal Wetlands Manager Stefanie Simpson extols eelgrasses as heroic carbon trappers. “Compared to terrestrial forests, we see wetlands capturing and storing carbon in the ground at rates of up to 10 times faster.”

Karen McGlathery is professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, and the head of the university’s Environmental Resilience Institute. She’s a native New Englander, and it’s second nature for her to pull on a wet suit on a 95 degree day and drop into eelgrasses far from shore. She leads the heavy lifting of measuring and computing carbon stored beneath the sea floor amid the meadows. Her calculation is that, over the past 20 years, with 75 million seeds spread among the meadows, and with these predominantly healthy grasses broadcasting their own seeds, 4,000 tons of carbon have been stored in the grasses. “Most of the carbon is stored in soils in seagrass meadows. That soil is growing in height and building over time. So, if you were to dig a deep hole, you would find really old sediment down there.” But the question is, as with all of nature’s solutions, how long will the habitat remain healthy and undisturbed? There needs to be a reasonable expectation that these carbon stores will remain buried for more than a year, and far longer is of course preferable.

Eelgrass: Credit George Stoyle. 1. Eelgrass meadow, Virginia Coast Preserve. 2. Karen McGlathery, Environmental Scientist, University of Virginia

The voluntary carbon market (VCM) was established to guide funding to projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that promise to blunt the forces of climate change. Under this system, it’s expected that an outside party will be called in to verify the carbon sequestration operation as valid, with an additional organization going on-site to conduct and cross-check measurements. In the case of the Virginia eelgrasses, an organization named Verra with 14 years of experience was engaged, with Amy Schmid as Verra’s point person.

At base, says Schmid, carbon offset markets are looking for proof of something called “additionality” — that is, can the organization seeking support for its carbon offset narrative demonstrate that the sequestration has occurred as a result of its actions. Despite the first plugs of eelgrasses being introduced more than 20 years ago (followed by seeding), Verra is looking for certifiable measurements that date back to when the project in question first registered as a carbon offset enterprise. That was five years ago, and so the time frame for allowable credits will be based on the meadow’s performance over the past five years. Even though the last five have not in fact been the best five for the eelgrass meadows due to heat-related grass losses, they represent a start.

Schmid has little doubt that once completely authorized, the eelgrass project will attract bidders. The multiple advantages of the project — biodiversity and coastal resilience to storm surge and flooding — are positive coastal community enhancements. And everyone agrees that the concept of “blue carbon” is hot. “Credit buyers are not just getting the carbon credits, they’re getting the story that comes with it,” says Schmid.

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At the University of Virginia, McGlathery is looking at the work through a wide-angle lens. By her calculations, less than one percent of current global emissions could be reduced through the restoration of the planet’s blue carbon ecosystem. Frankly, she says “this mitigation is not going to solve climate change, or even have the desired effect of substantially counteracting carbon emissions.” Still, she says, the concomitant benefits of restoration — like fisheries habitats, higher water quality, and coastal protections — are totally worth it and deserve a place in the overall portfolio of climate action.

Currently, she says, assuming this meadow’s acreage of 10,000, the eelgrasses are sequestering 2,000 tons of carbon every year, and “that’s equivalent to the annual emissions of over 1,300 cars per year.” “Our modeling indicates there are another 20,000 acres of suitable habitat to be restored in the Virginia Coast Reserve,” says McGlathery. Once executed, the carbon sequestration outcomes would likely be triple today’s totals.

Who buys blue carbon credits? Businesses whose greenhouse gas emissions are on “tilt” need to demonstrate that they are neutralizing their damage to the Earth’s atmosphere. Even the most reliable champions of blue carbon projects contemplate the tough questions about net results. Mark Luckenbach at VIMS says there are challenges to be overcome, “not the least of which is being very confident that you’re not giving somebody an extra dose of carbon that they can emit into the atmosphere and you’re building something that’s ephemeral.” McGlathery agrees: “How do I say this? There’s a little bit of controversy in the carbon offset world. You can claim a credit without actually making sure it’s a real credit. And that’s not a good thing for the climate because it doesn’t actually reduce the carbon that’s in the atmosphere.”

That is not the case in Virginia, where the sea floor was monitored for 10 years before it was seeded and subsequently observed and measured with scientific regularity for the next 20 years. “I don’t think there’s any other place in the world that has a number like that in terms of seagrass restoration,” says McGlathery. Indeed, the university even contributed to the creation of an international protocol issued by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC). That protocol requires a strict methodology to register a carbon sequestration project. “You have to be able to document the amount of carbon that’s accumulated over time to think about it as a carbon offset and mitigation of climate,” explains McGlathery.

Verra has heard all the critiques. Its response is to insist that calculations need to be on the conservative side. In the eelgrasses case, if and when carbon offset remuneration is funneled by the state to the entities nurturing the meadow, those funds are to be used for research and monitoring, not for the active function of restoration per se.

At VIMS, that’s okay with them. Christopher Patrick says he’s going to continue spreading seeds. That’s what he’s been doing and he has no reason to stop. University of Virginia’s McGlathery similarly says, regardless of whatever controversy may arise over carbon offsets, it’s still important to do this work. “Carbon is part of the picture but it’s not the whole picture. The carbon offsets being sequestered by the eelgrasses won’t directly benefit our neighbors in Oyster, Virginia. What will directly benefit them are all the other things we get from the seagrass meadow: protecting the shorelines, providing habitat for crabs and scallops and other kinds of commercially important fish.”

It’s now old news that this summer the IPCC issued a “Code Red” for human-driven global warming. Every day, there’s new news of the resulting climate disruptions: deadly fires, destructive floods, plant-killing heat waves, accompanied by the multiple webs of consequences, like homelessness, disease, and starvation.

Besides family, friendships, and, of course, love, the lingering joy of inhabiting planet Earth remains elementary things, like cool grass under your feet, the caress of a soft grassy meadow in an ocean swim, the experience of freshly baked bread, or a dram of whiskey.

Will carbon offsets preserve these? Even the scientists say no. But being mindful of what is at stake just might make a difference.

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Louise L. Schiavone is a Senior Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School in Baltimore and Washington, DC, a journalist, and a contributing newscast anchor at NPR.

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Featured image: “low tide colours” by marneejill is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Image has been cropped.