Lathyrus sativus, also known as grass pea, cicerchia, blue sweet pea, chickling pea, chickling vetch, Indian pea, white pea and white vetch, is a legume (family Fabaceae) commonly grown for human consumption and livestock feed in Asia and East Africa. It is a particularly important crop in areas that are prone to drought and famine, and is thought of as an 'insurance crop' as it produces reliable yields when all other crops fail. The Serra de'Conti Cicerchia is included in the Ark of Taste.
Lathyrus sativus grows best where the average temperature is 10–25 °C and average rainfall is 400–650 mm (16–26 in) per year. Like other legumes, it improves the nitrogen content of soil. The crop can survive drought or floods, but grows best in moist soils. It tolerates a range of soil types from light sandy through loamy to heavy clay, and acid, neutral, or alkaline soils. It does not tolerate shade.
Flour made from grass peas (Spanish: almorta) is the main ingredient for the gachas manchegas or gachas de almorta. Accompaniments for the dish vary throughout La Mancha. This is an ancient Manchego cuisine staple, generally consumed during the cold winter months. The dish is generally eaten directly out of the pan in which it was cooked, using either a spoon or a simple slice of bread. This dish is commonly consumed immediately after removing it from the fire, being careful not to burn one's lips or tongue.
Due to its toxicity, its human consumption has been forbidden in Spain from 1967 to 2018. However, it was widely distributed as animal feed and displayed away from other flours valid for human consumption (BOE-2484/1967. September 21st. Paragraphs 3.18.09 a and b and 5.36.16 b)
Immature seeds can be eaten like green peas. L. sativus needs soaking and thorough cooking to reduce toxins.
Seed ODAP characteristics
Like other grain legumes, L. sativus produces a high-protein seed. The seeds however also contain variable amounts of a neurotoxic amino acid β-N-oxalyl-L-α,β-diaminopropionic acid (ODAP). ODAP is considered the cause of the disease neurolathyrism, a neurodegenerative disease that causes paralysis of the lower body: emaciation of gluteal muscle (buttocks). The disease has been seen to occur after famines in Europe (France, Spain, Germany), North Africa, and South Asia, and is still prevalent in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan (panhandle) when Lathyrus seed is the exclusive or main source of nutrients for extended periods. ODAP concentration increases in plants grown under stressful conditions, compounding the problem.
The crop is harmless to humans in small quantities, but eating it as a major part of the diet over a three-month period can cause permanent paralysis below the knees in adults and brain damage in children, a disorder known as lathyrism. (Kew Gardens)
Some authors have argued that this toxicity is overstated, and L. sativus is harmless as part of a normal diet. This legume is the only known dietary source for L-homoarginine and is preferred over arginine for nitric oxide (NO) generation. L-ODAP is reported to act as an activator of calcium-dependent protein kinase C.
Breeding programs are underway to produce lines of L. sativus that produce less ODAP.
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.
Crop wild relatives are prominent source of genetic material, which can be tapped to improve cultivars. ICARDA is currently evaluating crop wild relatives to explore the genes with low or no ODAP and resistant/tolerant to biotic/abiotic stresses and transfer them to cultivated grass pea.
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- BSBI List 2007 (xls). Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. Archived from the original (xls) on 2015-06-26. Retrieved 2014-10-17.
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- Kew Gardens Lathyrus sativus (grass pea) Archived 2016-01-30 at the Wayback Machine
- Oudhia, P. (1999). Allelopathic effects of some obnoxious weeds on germination and seedling vigour of Lathyrus sativus. FABIS Newsletter 42:32-34.
- Plants for a Future Lathyrus sativus
- "Serra De' Conti Cicerchia - Presìdi Slow Food". Slow Food Foundation. Retrieved 2020-08-10.
- Gachas manchegas recipe (in Spanish)
- S. L. N. Rao; P. R. Adiga; P. S. Sarma (1964). "The Isolation and Characterization of β-N-Oxalyl-L-α,β-diaminopropionic acid: A Neurotoxin from the Seeds of Lathyrus sativus". Biochemistry. 3 (3): 432–436. doi:10.1021/bi00891a022. PMID 14155110.
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- Rao, S. L. N. (2011-03-01). "A look at the brighter facets of β-N-oxalyl-l-α,β-diaminopropionic acid, homoarginine and the grass pea". Food and Chemical Toxicology. 49 (3): 620–622. doi:10.1016/j.fct.2010.06.054. PMID 20654679.
- Singh, Surya S.; Rao, S.L.N. (2013-07-01). "Lessons from neurolathyrism: A disease of the past & the future of Lathyrus sativus (Khesari dal)". The Indian Journal of Medical Research. 138 (1): 32–37. ISSN 0971-5916. PMC 3767245. PMID 24056554.
- "Lathyrism". Patient. EMIS Group. 2010. Retrieved 2016-09-14.
- Grass pea, or Lathyrus, presents a fascinating paradox – it is both a lifesaver and a destroyer.