Grasspea (Lathyrus sativus L.), grown both as food and fodder, is one of the preferred legume crops in poor and arid areas for adaptation under changing climate because of its intrinsic tolerance to drought, water-logging and salinity. It is almost free from any serious infestation of insect pests and diseases. Further, like all pulses crops, grasspea enhances farming systems by fixing Nitrogen from the atmosphere and reducing pest outbreaks through intercropping with other food crops. Grasspea, therefore, plays an important role as subsistence crop for resource poor farmers in many South Asian and Sub-Saharan African countries.
Grasspea contains up to 34% protein and other essential micronutrients, and is often the only alternative to starvation when other crops fail. However, when eaten as a large part of the diet over a long period (which is often the case during famine) it can cause permanent paralysis in adults and brain damage in children. The seeds of traditional grasspea varieties contain much higher levels of plant toxins than the safe limit.
ICARDA and Grasspea
ICARDA’s Genebank holds one of the largest collections of Lathyrus with more than 3,600 accessions representing 45 species from 45 countries. These lines were used in hybridization program and also made available to National Agricultural Research System (NARS) partners through international nurseries for further evaluation. ICARDA’s contributions have resulted in the release of safe low toxin varieties in South Asia and Ethiopia.
‘BARI Khesari 3’ in Bangladesh and ‘Waise’ in Ethiopia were released for cultivation in fragile ecosystems of these countries. Similar efforts are under way by Indian institutions, like Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and State Agricultural Universities. Improved varieties of grasspea were developed with less than 0.1% toxin, increased tolerance to drought and water logging, and far higher yields (up to 43% more).
Safer varieties of grasspea, like ‘Nirmal’, ‘Prateek’, ‘Mahateora’ and ‘Ratan’ are being promoted under India’s National Food Security Mission and OCP Foundation projects. ICARDA, in collaboration with ICAR and regional institutes, disseminated these low toxic grasspea varieties throughout the targeted area. Due to the active involvement of farmers in the five important grasspea growing states of India (Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal), a total of 15,827 quintal of quality seeds were produced between 2010 and 2015.
The improved grasspea is being promoted for both mono-cropping and for sowing in rice-fallows. With establishment of seed hubs and partnership with local NGOs, seed replacement rate has increased significantly and there is an enhanced production of quality seed. (Read more about the project).
The development of low neurotoxin grasspea is ensuring nutrition and food security for the poorest of farmers even under tough conditions of drought and high soil salinity. (Read more about the project).