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Grasspea

Overview

Crop Grasspea Lathyrus sativa Center of origin: SEM, WAS

Grass pea, or Lathyrus, presents a fascinating paradox – it is both a lifesaver and a destroyer.

It is easily cultivated and can withstand extreme environments – from drought to flooding. And, because of this hardiness, grass pea is often the only alternative to starvation when other crops fail. However, when eaten as a large part of the diet over a long enough period (which is often the case during famine) it can permanently paralyze adults from the knees down and cause brain damage in children, a disorder named lathyrism.

The key to overcoming this paradox lies in the diversity of the crop. Certain varieties from western Asia have a low level of the neurotoxin and breeders and farmers are now exploring this genetic diversity to develop varieties that maintain the tolerance to extreme conditions, while at the same time achieving a safe level of the toxic compound.

Grass pea is grown both as feed for livestock and as a grain crop for humans. The crop is an excellent fodder with its reliable yield and high protein content. Grass pea also plays an important role in farming systems by providing fertilizer (like other legumes, it fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere) and reducing pest outbreaks through intercropping with other food crops.

The adverse effects of the neurotoxin in grass pea have been known since prehistoric times, and are mentioned by Hippocrates and in ancient Indian writings. The crop is harmless to humans in small quantities, but a steady diet of grass pea seeds over a three-month period can cause the neurological disorder. In times of drought and famine grass pea is sometimes the only alternative to starvation and the intake rises to the critical level. Moreover, evidence indicates that the level of the neurotoxin increases in the crop under conditions of severe water stress, aggravating the risk when the food is essential to the poorest of the poor. Ethiopia has suffered several lathyrism epidemics in the past 50 years. The most recent occurred in northeastern Ethiopia following the drought of 1995/96 and the subsequent widespread failure of crops. According to The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) at least 100,000 people in developing countries are believed to suffer from paralysis caused by the neurotoxin.

The terrible effects of prolonged dependence on grass pea might lead to the conclusion that the crop should be abandoned as human food altogether. In reality this is an unlikely option as the crop continues to be an ultimate safety net for poor subsistence farmers in some of the poorest areas of the world. Acknowledging the importance of this crop, the International Centre for Agricultural Research for Dry Areas in (ICARDA), together with Ethiopian breeders has undertaken a project to develop cultivars with low neurotoxin levels. The role of diversity in breeding programmes was instantly clear: the toxins found in African and Asian grasspea plants are seven times more toxic than Middle Eastern types. The new ICARDA hybrids contain just enough to maintain their drought and waterlogging tolerance without threatening human health.

Conserving forever in genebanks

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ICARDA

Number of varieties available to the public
39.4% 1,646
Data available in genesys
0% 0
Safety duplicated
58.2% 2,434

Breakdown of genebanks conserving Grasspea

  • ICARDA 4,180 / 100%

The Crop Trust has supported 11 projects for Grasspea

  1. Azerbaijan: The Crop Trust supported the Genetic Resources Institute of the National Academy of Sciences to regenerate, characterize and safety duplicate 20 grass pea accessions with the objective of rescuing threatened diversity and enhancing use of these crop.
  2. Bangladesh: The Crop Trust provided support to the Plant Genetic Resources Centre of the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute to characterize and evaluate 1000 grass pea accessions for ODAP content (a neurotoxin that can cause irreversible paralysis when consumed in large quantities) and protein content with the aim of improving its nutritive quality and increasing consumption in Bangladesh and northern parts of India and Ethiopia
  3. Bangladesh: The Crop Trust supported the Plant Genetic Resources Centre of the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) to regenerate and characterize 1,200 grass pea accessions with the objective of rescuing threatened diversity and enhancing use of this crop.
  4. Bulgaria: The Crop Trust supported the Institute of Plant Genetic Resources to regenerate, characterize and safety duplicating 20 grass pea accessions with the objective of rescuing threatened diversity and enhancing use of the crops.
  5. Hungary: The Crop Trust supported the Research Centre for Agrobotany to regenerate 82 grass pea accessions with the objective of rescuing threatened diversity and enhancing use of the crop.
  6. Nepal: The Crop Trust supported the Agriculture Botany Division to regenerate, characterize and safety duplicate 100 grass pea accessions with the objective of rescuing threatened diversity and enhancing use of the crop.
  7. Pakistan: The Crop Trust provided support to the Institute of Agricultural Biotechnology and Genetic Resources, Pakistan Agricultural Research Council to regenerate, characterize and safety duplicate 40 grass pea accessions with the objective of rescuing threatened diversity and enhancing use of the crop.
  8. Russia: The Crop Trust supported the N.I. Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry to regenerate, characterize and safety duplicate 114 grass pea accessions with the objective of rescuing threatened diversity and enhancing use of the crop.
  9. Syria: The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) receives an in-perpetuity grant from the Crop Trust for the long-term conservation of the global collections of barley, forages, faba bean, grass pea and lentil it holds on behalf of the international community.
  10. Syria: The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) received funding from the Crop Trust to evaluate cultivated and wild Lathyrus species for low ß-ODAP neurotoxin content and cross pollination rate with the aim of identifying germplasm lines for use in developing suitable varieties for use by farmers in the grasspea growing areas of the world.
  11. Ukraine: The National Center for Plant Genetic Resources of Ukraine received support from the Crop Trust to regenerate and characterize 300 grass pea accessions with the objective of rescuing threatened diversity and enhancing use of the crops. 256 accessions are safety duplicated in the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).