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Grasspea: back on the menu for India’s agriculture

Grasspea: back on the menu for India’s agriculture

Grasspea (Lathyrus sativus L.) has been grown as a crop in South Asia since time immemorial. But it has a problem. Its seeds and plant parts contain a neuro-toxin, ODAP. As a result in India its marketing has been banned, but not cultivation. Because of this trade ban, farmers were discouraged to grow grasspea on a large scale, growing only for family consumption, and its cropping area decreased from 1.3 m ha to about 850,000 ha in recent decades.

Now it’s coming back into favour due to several advantages, such as its very low input requirement and low cost of cultivation, suitability for Conservation Agriculture, adaptation to harsh environments (drought, heat, excess water), poor soil quality, and crucially dual purpose use.

Grasspea has the potential to grow in  rice-fallows and out of a total of  11.6 m ha fallows, at least 0.5 m can be brought under grasspea as a second crop to boost income for farmers.

Researchers in India and at ICARDA have been involved in developing low-toxin or toxin-free grasspea varieties to avoid health hazards, along with high yield (up to 43% higher) and wide adaptation.  In this endeavour a number of low-toxin varieties have been released in India and ICARDA-supplied, low-ODAP lines are in multi-location testing for future release.

Seed was the major constraint at the start of the project, but now with massive seed production programs by farmers (foundation+ certified), a total of 150 t of seeds of these varieties are available for 2012/13 distribution. Several seed-hubs have been created. Capacity development and awareness programs have been adopted in a big way. In the current year, 2 trainers’ trainings, 37 farmers’ workshops, 15 trainings on quality seed production, 3 womens’ training on physical detoxification of local varieties, 4 awareness camps, 6 field days were organized. A total of 109 villages have been covered involving 1184 farmers in 13 districts across 4 states.

The success of the project in last two years has encouraged a new State, Maharashtra, to introduce expanded grasspea cultivation. Instructed by Central Govt. Ministry of Agriculture, the Agricultural Commissioner of the State has sought ICARDA’s help and called upon regional co-ordinator and legume breeder Dr Ashutosh Sarker to provide them with improved seeds of these varieties along with appropriate production technologies.

A farmer in West Bengal in front of his harvested grass pea heap. Researchers discuss new varieties with him