FARGO, ND. — Grains’ ties to sustainability often revolve around benefits such as enhancing soil health and reducing water use by being more drought-resistant. Reducing plastic has become another benefit, said Sue Marshall, founder and chief executive of NetZro, a food upcycling platform.

During the Northern Crops Institute’s third annual Ancient Grains Conference on June 25 in Fargo, she explained how a school system in California wanted to use upcycled grains to create edible cups, which then could replace plastic cups containing parfaits. The grain-based cups also add protein and fiber.

“So now I have school systems calling me,” Marshall said. “Kids will love this, by the way. They will love to eat your cup.”

Upcycled at NetZro involves converting industrial food and beverage byproducts into new revenue. Many upcycled grains are spent grains, which are byproducts from the brewing industry.

Marshall was on a sustainability panel at the conference along with Lindsay Malone, PhD, assistant professor in the School of Natural Resource Sciences at North Dakota State University, and Len Marquart, PhD, associate professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota.

Malone explained inter-cropping, which involves growing more than one crop on the same land at the same time. Harvest is the big challenge with intercropping, she said and added success will depend upon the size of the seeds. In North Dakota, canola and pea work well in intercropping since canola seeds are tiny and pea seeds are bigger, she said. The two crops may be harvested together and then separated later. Buckwheat and oats would be harder to separate.

Marquart talked about the need for communication. He said farmers need to know whether consumer demand will make it feasible to plant new crops such as ancient grains, and food manufacturers need to know the probability of a crop being available.

“What type of dialogue needs to happen along the local food system in order to determine what’s feasible?” Marquart said.

How fiber improves gut health could make ancient grains more popular among consumers.

“It’s big. It’s all over,” Marquart said of gut health. “I think it’s something that can be jumped on. How you jump on that, I don’t know because the research continues to come out. I think you’re on a trend that could work.”

Upcycled grains also have health benefits in that sugar and carbohydrates already have been extracted, leaving mostly protein and fiber to give upcycled grains more nutritional value, Marshall said. Larger food companies turn to upcycled grains for sustainable benefits but more so for nutrition, she said.

“Yes, it’s nice,” she said of the sustainable benefits. “It’s a climate-forward, environmental thing, but really it’s a nutritional thing.”