Whither the grasspea?

Would you knowingly eat something that could harm you? That’s the dilemma facing millions of poor, subsistence farmers and their families from time to time, especially in India, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia, when the alternative is not eating anything at all. Famine.

From the beginnings of agriculture and earlier, 10,000 or more years ago, farmers have cultivated and consumed in times of adversity, the seeds of a plant known scientifically as Lathyrus sativus L.¹ Or, more commonly, the grasspea. It’s also an important fodder crop for livestock.

On the plus side, grasspea has a good protein profile and, as a legume, it supplies nitrogen to the soil through its root nodules. Its particular agricultural value is that it can be grown in times of drought, as well as when the land is flooded. It’s the ultimate insurance crop for poor, subsistence farmers.

Yet, it holds a deadly secret. β-ODAP. Or more precisely, β-L-oxalyl-2,3-diaminopropionic acid to give its full name, an amino acid that is also a neurotoxin responsible for the condition known as lathyrism, a non-reversible paralysis. No wonder, then, that its cultivation is banned in some Indian states. In the past, its consumption has also had severe consequences in Europe.

‘Gracias a la Almorta’ or ‘Thanks to the Grasspea’ by Francisco de Goya (painted between 1811 and 1813), painted during the Spanish War of Independence, when poor people turned to eating grasspea, and suffered paralysis from lathyrism. However, on the British Museum website it suggests grain (millet) rather than ‘grasspea’, and no mention of lathyrism. ‘Almorta’ is a Spanish word for grasspea.

Yet, when needs must, poor farmers turn to the grasspea when there is nothing else to eat because drought or floods have wiped out other crops.

So what’s being done to overcome the grasspea’s downside? Fortunately, an international collaborative research effort (funded by the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund), Unlocking the Potential of Grass pea for Resilient Agriculture in Drought Prone Environments (UPGRADE), aims to breed ‘sweet’ varieties of grasspea with a low content of the neurotoxin.

I learned about this project yesterday evening when I happened to tune into BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science (you can listen from about 11′ 20″ into the program). The John Innes Centre in the UK is one of the project members, and in Prof. Cathie Martin‘s lab, Dr Anne Edwards is screening about 500 different grasspea lines, testing them for β-ODAP content, and also introgressing the lower content trait into different genetic backgrounds, for future testing in the field.

I was fascinated to hear how this international collaboration was making progress towards defeating the scourge of lathyrism, as I’d also worked on grasspea almost 40 years ago. But from a crop evolution and genetic resources point of view.

When I returned to The University of Birmingham in 1981, I decided to start a small research project on grasspea, looking at the diversity and broader genetic resources of this important but somewhat neglected crop, in addition to continuing my research on potatoes.

In 1981, one of the students attending the one-year MSc Course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources was Abdul bin Ghani Yunus from Malaysia. He worked on his dissertation project under my supervision, to study the diversity of grasspea. I already had assembled a collection of grasspea varieties from different sources around the world including the Vavilov Institute in St Petersburg, so Ghani had quite a stock of varieties to work with.

His dissertation led to one scientific paper, Variation in the grasspea, Lathyrus sativus L. and wild species, published in the journal Euphytica in 1984. There were two principal conclusions:

  • L. sativus is a highly variable species, and there is a clear distinction between the blue-flowered forms from south-west Asia, Ethiopia and the Indian subcontinent, and the white and white and blue flowered forms with white seeds which have a more westerly distribution. Differences in vegetative parts may be due to selection for forage types.
  • L. sativus appears to be closely related to L. cicera and L. gorgoni, and this relationship needs further investigation.

Ghani returned to Malaysia in 1982 to continue his research and teaching at the University of Agriculture, Selangor and I heard little from him, until about 1986. Then, he contacted me again, asking about the possibilities of returning to Birmingham to complete a PhD under my supervision. He wanted to work on a tropical species from Malaysia. But since he did not envision spending time back in Malaysia during his PhD program, I explained that working on this species (I don’t now remember what it was) was not feasible, since we wouldn’t be able to grow it successfully in the glasshouse at Birmingham. After all, it wasn’t the species per se that was the most important aspect for his PhD; it would be the focus, the scientific methods and approaches he would learn and employ that were more important.

I convinced him to continue his work on Lathyrus, but broadening its scope to study the biosystematics or biological relationships of the grasspea with the species considered to be its closest relatives. In that way we anticipated better defining the genetic resources or gene pools of the grasspea (an essential prerequisite if, at some time in the future, a breeding program was set up that needed to exploit more diversity), as well as trying to shed some light on the origin of this neglected food crop.

In 1990, Ghani successfully presented his PhD thesis, Biosystematics of Lathyrus Section Lathyrus with special reference to the grass pea, L. sativus L., leading to two more useful scientific papers that have been widely cited:

  • The genepools of the grasspea, Lathyrus sativus L., in Plant Breeding (1991). This research concerned the cross-breeding relationships of the grasspea and its closest relatives, based on experimental pollinations, pollen tube growth microscopy, and chromosome pairing, confirming one of our earlier hypotheses about L. cicera.
  • Phenotypic polymorphism of six isozymes in the grasspea (Lathyrus sativus L.), in Euphytica (1991). Ghani concluded that there was more genetic variation than perhaps expected in this self-pollinating species, and we discussed the implications of exploiting this diversity in plant breeding.

Today, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) receives financial support from the Crop Trust to conserve almost 4200 samples of grasspea in its genebank, with 2000 safely stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault above the Arctic Circle.

Of course, grasspea is not the only edible plant species that comes with a health risk. In South America, for example, there are so-called ‘bitter’ varieties of cassava, an important source of carbohydrate, producing cyanogenic compounds that must be removed before the roots are safe to eat. Indigenous communities throughout Brazil evolved techniques to express the poisonous juice and make the food safe. In other parts of South America ‘sweet’ varieties were selected over thousands of years, and became the genetic base of commercial cassava varieties grown world-wide. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), based in Cali, Colombia has the world’s largest cassava germplasm that I was privileged to see in 2016 when I was conducting an evaluation of the CGIAR’s genebanks program.

This grasspea story is a good example of how progress can be made when there’s a clear research project objective, funding is available, and researchers around the world agree to pool their expertise towards solving an important problem. With recent reports that the head of DFID (the UK’s government department managing overseas development assistance or ODA) is seriously considering making changes to the 0.7% of national income commitment to the ODA budget, grasspea improvement for marginalized communities goes to show just how important such funding is, and the potential impact it can have on the lives of some of the poorest people around the world. This is the raison d’être of international agricultural research for development, an endeavor in which I participated over four decades.


¹ Grasspea is a relative of the garden sweetpea, Lathyrus odoratus, a plant that is grown for its showy, fragrant blooms.

Development aid is under threat . . . and Brexit isn’t helping

The United Kingdom is one of just a handful of countries that has committed to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) on overseas development assistance (ODA or foreign aid) in support of the UN’s development goals. In fact that 0.7% target commitment is enshrined in UK law passed in 2015 (under a Conservative government), and the target has been met in every year since 2013. That’s something we should be proud of. Even the Tories should be proud of that. It seems, however, that many aren’t.

For a variety of reasons, the aid budget is under threat. After years of government austerity and the decline of home-grown services (NHS, police, education, and the like) through under-funding, and as we lurch towards Brexit, the right-wing media and politicians are seizing every opportunity to ignore (or actively distort, even trivialize) the objectives of development aid and what it has achieved around the world.  Or maybe they just lack understanding.

In 2016, the UK’s ODA budget, administered by the Department for International Development (DFID), was just over £13 billion (almost USD20 billion). Check this link to see where DFID works and on what sort of projects it spends its budget. That budget has ‘soared’, according to a recent claim by The Daily Mail.

In the post-Brexit referendum febrile atmosphere, the whole topic of development aid has seemingly become toxic with increasing calls among the right-wing media, headed by The Daily Mail (and supported by The Daily Express and The Telegraph) for the development budget to be reduced and instead spent on hiring more doctors and nurses, and other home-based services and projects, pandering to the prejudices of its readers. Such simplistic messages are grist to the mill for anyone troubled by the UK’s engagement with the world.

From: John Stevens and Daniel Martin for the Daily Mail, published at 22:42, 5 April 2018 | Updated: 23:34, 5 April 2018

There is unfortunately little understanding of what development assistance is all about, and right-wing politicians who really should know better, like the Member for Northeast Somerset (and the Eighteenth Century), Jacob Rees-Mogg have jumped on the anti-aid bandwagon, making statements such as: Protecting the overseas aid budget continues to be a costly mistake when there are so many other pressing demands on the budget.

Now there are calls for that 2015 Act of Parliament to be looked at again. Indeed, I just came across an online petition just yesterday calling on Parliament to debate a reduction of the development aid budget to just 0.2% of GNI. However, 100,000 signatures are needed to trigger a debate, and as I checked this morning it didn’t seem to be gaining much traction.

I agree it would be inaccurate to claim that all development aid spending has been wise, reached its ultimate beneficiaries, or achieved the impacts and outcomes intended. Some has undoubtedly ended up in the coffers of corrupt politicians.

I cannot agree however, with Conservative MP for Wellingborough and arch-Brexiteer, Peter Bone, who is reported as stating: Much of the money is not spent properly … What I want to see is more of that money spent in our own country … The way to improve the situation in developing countries is to trade with them.

As an example of the trivialization by the media of what development aid is intended for, let me highlight one example that achieved some notoriety, and was seized upon to discredit development aid.

What was particularly irksome apparently, with a frenzy whipped up by The Daily Mail and others, was the perceived frivolous donation (as high as £9 million, I have read) to a project that included the girl band Yegna, dubbed the Ethiopian Spice Girls, whose aim is to [inspire] positive behavior change for girls in Ethiopia through drama and music.

I do not know whether this aid did represent value for money; but I have read that the program did receive some positive reviews. However, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact raised some concerns as far back as 2012 about the Girl Effect project (known as Girl Hub then).

From their blinkered perspectives, various politicians have found it convenient to follow The Daily Mail narrative. What, it seems to me, they failed to comprehend (nor articulate for their constituencies) was how media strategies like the Girl Effect project can effectively target (and reach) millions of girls (and women) with messages fundamental to their welfare and well-being. After being in the media spotlight, and highlighted as an example of ‘misuse’ of the aid budget, the support was ended.

In a recent policy brief known as a ‘Green Paper’, A World for the Many Not the Few, a future Labour government has pledged to put women at the heart of British aid efforts, and broaden what has been described by much of the right-wing media as a left-wing agenda. Unsurprisingly this has received widespread criticism from those who want to reduce the ODA budget or cut it altogether.

But in many of the poorest countries of the world, development aid from the UK and other countries has brought about real change, particularly in the agricultural development arena, one with which I’m familiar, through the work carried out in 15 international agricultural research centers around the world supported through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR that was founded in 1971, the world’s largest global agricultural innovation network.

In a review article¹ published in Food Policy in 2010, agricultural economists Mitch Renkow and Derek Byerlee stated that CGIAR research contributions in crop genetic improvement, pest management, natural resources management, and policy research have, in the aggregate, yielded strongly  positive impacts relative to investment, and appear likely to continue doing so. Crop genetic improvement research stands out as having had the most profound documented positive impacts. Substantial evidence exists that other research areas within the CGIAR have had large beneficial impacts although often locally and nationally rather than internationally.

In terms of crop genetic improvement (CGI) they further stated that . . . estimates of the overall benefits of CGIAR’s contribution to CGI are extraordinarily large – in the billions of dollars. Most of these benefits are produced by the three main cereals [wheat, maize, and rice] . . . average annual benefits for CGIAR research for spring bread wheat, rice (Asia only), and maize (CIMMYT only) of $2.5, $10.8 and $0.6–0.8 billion, respectively . . . estimated rates of return to the CGIAR’s investment in CGI research ranging from 39% in Latin America to over 100% in Asia and MENA [Middle east and North Africa].

DFID continues to be a major supporter of the CGIAR research agenda, making the third largest contribution (click on the image above to open the full financial report for 2016) after the USA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. At £43.3 million (in 2016), DFID’s contribution to the CGIAR is a drop in the ocean compared to its overall aid budget. Yet the impact goes beyond the size of the contribution.

I don’t believe it’s unrealistic to claim that the CGIAR has been a major ODA success over the past 47 years. International agricultural research for development has bought time, and fewer people go to bed hungry each night.

Nevertheless, ODA is under threat everywhere. I am concerned that in the clamour to reduce (even scrap) the UK’s ODA international collaborations like the CGIAR will face even more funding challenges. In Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ dystopia there is no certainty that enormous support provided by USAID will continue at the same level.

Most of my professional career was concerned with international agricultural research for development, in South and Central America (with the International Potato Center, or CIP, from 1973 to 1981) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines (from 1991 to 2010). The conservation of plant genetic resources or  agrobiodiversity in international genebanks (that I have highlighted in many stories on this blog) is supported through ODA. The crop improvement programs of the CGIAR centers like CIMMYT, IRRI, ICARDA and ICRISAT have released numerous improved varieties for use in agricultural systems around the world. Innovative research is combating the threats of new crop diseases or the difficulties of growing crops in areas subject to flooding or drought².

This research (often with critical links back into research institutes and universities in donor countries) has led to improvements in the lives of countless millions of poor people around the world. But the job is not finished. Populations continue to grow, with more mouths to feed. Civil unrest and conflicts continue to blight some of the poorest countries in the world. And biology and environment continue to throw challenges at us in the form of new disease strains or a changing climate, for example. Continued investment in ODA is essential and necessary to support agricultural research for development.

Agriculture is just one sector on the development spectrum.  Let’s not allow the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Peter Bone, or The Daily Mail to capture the development debate for what appear to be their own xenophobic purposes.

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¹ Renkow, M and D Byerlee, 2010. The impacts of CGIAR research: A review of recent evidence. Food Policy 35 (5), 391-402. doi.org/10.1016/j.foodpol.2010.04.006

² In another blog post I will describe some of this innovative research and how the funding of agricultural research for development and greater accountability for ODA has become rather complicated over the past couple of decades.