Monday, May 24, 2010

Beware the Grass Pea

There's been a big uptick in grass pea consumption in recent years - with accompanying paralysis (especially in children).

Grass pea (Lathyrus sativus*) is a crop of last resort. It's commonly grown from Southwest Asia through the eastern Horn of Africa, where it's mostly used as livestock forage. It has tremendous resilience in the face of environmental stress and pestilence and is often the only thing left standing after severe droughts and civil wars. Grass peas taste good, are full of protein, can grow in terrible soil and fix nitrogen, however, they also produce a potent neurotoxin, ODAP, which causes paralysis of the lower limbs when consumed in excess over extended periods.

It's a real tragedy, but thankfully it's one that science and crop biodiversity can do something about.

ICARDA, a research station of the international agricultural science organization, CGIAR, is working on screening germplasm from all over the region to find locally-adapted landraces with very low levels of ODAP. When I first heard about this story, I wondered why they didn't just use mutation breeding or genetic engineering to knock out the toxin altogether instead of just trying to find low-toxin ones, but apparently the toxin plays an important role in the grass pea's stress tolerance.

It's a pretty simple project that could make a really big difference.

*Sweet pea is in this genus

7 comments:

  1. It's a great plant - hell, it will even grow in the UK, but it's tragic that excessive consumption can be so harmful. Let's hope their research is successful. I wonder whether anyone has investigated the effects of fermentation on the ODAP levels - could it be made into some sort of miso or tempeh type product with reduced neurotoxic effects?

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  2. Seems like someone's already investigated this: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14995115

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  3. Huh... I just grow it for its pretty blue flowers. I won't eat it, though.

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  4. There are several varieties with very low levels of ODAP available from India (Prof. Mehta), Canada (Clayton Campbell), Bangladesh and Australia (CLIMA). The latter developed from the other sources. There is a problem with keeping the levels of ODAP low since outcrossing by bees tends to lead to admixture with local varieties.

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  5. Rhizo:
    That's a great idea! I know some people think fermentation is really underutilized in the developing world. This seems like a great example.

    Dirk:
    Thanks for the additional info!

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  6. I think it goes back to the definition of poison being the dose ' everything is a poison' - the statement 'excessive consumption over extended periods'... How many food groups would pass that test without affecting health? This plant is now getting serious attention as a functional food due to the presence of homoarganine; apparently a better substrate for Nitric Oxide production (the most important signalling molecule crucial to cardio and cerebral metabolism). I recently attended a lecture in India where the prof. of Biochem, was incredibly excited about pea Grass work and Alzheimers. So I think its moderation and watch this space.

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  7. Anonymous said... I think it goes back to the definition of poison being the dose ' everything is a poison' - the statement 'excessive consumption over extended periods'... How many food groups would pass that test without affecting health? This plant is now getting serious attention as a functional food due to the presence of homoarganine; apparently a better substrate for Nitric Oxide production (the most important signalling molecule crucial to cardio and cerebral metabolism). I recently attended a lecture in India where the prof. of Biochem, was incredibly excited about pea Grass work and Alzheimers. So I think its moderation and watch this space.

    December 22, 2010 12:26 PM

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