Column: Bringing back grass pea

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Published: January 13, 2016 12:21:12 AM

Cultivation of low-ODAP varieties of the lentil must be encouraged to counter the pulses’ price fire

An aam aadmi dal, banned for 50 years for causing lathyrism or paralysis of the lower limbs in young adult males, is about to get rehabilitated.

Grass pea (Lathyrus sativus), or khesari dal, was banned for sale in itself or as an ingredient under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, after a study published in 1964 attributed the crippling disease to it in Rewa district of Madhya Pradesh. Since then, various states have banned its sale and storage but there was no bar on cultivation.

In 1983, the MP government forbade the payment of wages in the form of khesari dal after the collector of Rewa district suspected a connection between the pulse and the disease in the families of agricultural workers, on the basis of an inquiry ordered by the Supreme Court.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is of the opinion that the ban on sale and storage of khesari dal should be lifted and the ministry of agriculture should promote cultivation of this nutritious pulse crop, so long as the varieties are low in oxalyldiaminopropionic acid (ODAP), the neurotoxin that causes the affliction when the dal is consumed for long durations in large quantities. At one point of time, poor people used to consume the dal as a staple. They would make rotis from it. That is no longer the case. Now, it is used as an accompaniment.
The decision was taken at FSSAI’s November-6 meeting, after G S Toteja, head of nutrition at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), reported that no cases of neuro-lathyrism attributable to the dal had been detected in the past 20 years. The food regulator said the ban should be lifted ‘in view of its low consumption, availability of low-toxin varieties, high protein content and water-use efficiency.’ This view was supported by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).

Despite the ban, khesari dal is grown on about 0.65 million hectares (ha), mainly in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra (but also in Assam, Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, and the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh). Before the ban, it was grown on 1.3 million ha. “It is the number-1 pulse crop in Bangladesh,” says Ashutosh Sarker, of the International Centre for Agriculture in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

“It is grown on 0.3 million hectares, and has not been banned. On the contrary, the Bangladesh government is encouraging its cultivation.”

ICARDA, headquartered in Lebanon, has introduced a number of grass pea variants of West Asian origin in India for testing and breeding. It has collaborated with ICAR on four low-ODAP varieties—Prateek, Mahateora, Ratan and Nirmal.

If it is grown, it will be sold. Sarker says grass pea retails for Rs 40-45 a kg in Bihar and West Bengal and is used to adulterate besan (gram flour), which sells for double the price in Delhi. The dal lends crispiness to fried stuff.
Grass pea is a hardy crop that can thrive in severe drought and even survive in water-logged soils. It is survival food for the poorest in times of crop failures. The dal is nutritious; about half of it is starch and the protein content varies between 26% and 32%. It is rich in anti-oxidants.

Khesari dal can be harvested in a little less than 125 days. It has several uses. Shoots plucked after about a month are cooked as a leafy vegetable. Growers let out their fields for cattle to graze on just before flowering. This has twin purposes: the dung nourishes the crop, which also branches profusely because of the natural ‘pruning’. Grass pea plants mixed with rice straw are nutritious fodder for stall-fed cattle. Being a leguminous crop, it enriches the soil by trapping atmospheric nitrogen.

Pooja Sah, who is associated with implementation of the National Food Security Mission on khesari dal at ICARDA, says the new varieties, when fed to ruminants (cattle and goats) at the Indian Grassland and Fodder Research Institute in Jhansi, did not cause any adverse impact. Blood and milk samples did not reveal the presence of ODAP toxin, she said, citing  VK Yadav, the institute’s principal scientist, for support.

Relay cropping is a traditional practice. Grass pea seeds are broadcast over standing rice crop two weeks before it is due for harvesting. The residual moisture in the fields enables them to sprout quickly. Farmers may also prime the seeds by soaking them in water or a mixture of cattle dung and the micronutrient molybdenum. The crop needs no tilling and little care. The only investment is on quality seed.

Some of the low-ODAP varieties have yields of 1.8-2 tonnes per hectare against the average of half a tonne for traditional varieties in Chhattisgarh and 1.2 tonnes in Bihar. But they are less hardy as ODAP makes the crop resilient.

The toxin can be removed by boiling, soaking, roasting or steeping the dal in water with 2% slaked lime (chuna) for three hours.

“I have thirty years of experience with the crop and I have not seen any person affected by lathyrism,” says HC Nanda of Indira Gandhi Krishi Vishwavidhyalaya, Raipur, who developed the Mahateora variety. In the only case of lathyrism in his knowledge, a link with the dal could not be confirmed.

Now that it is no longer suspect, khesari dal should be promoted on rice fallows. This will help relieve the shortage of pulses, whose shooting prices have put them beyond the reach of the very poor.

The author is editor of

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