Khesari dal (grass pea) – a valuable pulse that earned disrepute because of its toxin content and has been barred from being marketed – can now hope to be rehabilitated thanks to some well-conceived technological and promotional interventions. Farmers, in any case, have not stopped growing it and using it as food as well as livestock feed. This is chiefly because it survives and yields grains even when other crops succumb to drought or flood. Besides, it grows practically without any input other than the seeds.
The indefinite ban on khesari was imposed over four decades ago when its consumption was linked with incidences of lathyrism (lower limbs debility). The culprit was the neurotoxin, beta-ODAP, present in grass pea grains. Traditional, grass pea varieties had between 0.5 to 2.5 per cent toxins, against the less than 0.1 per cent deemed safe for human consumption. Excessive consumption of grass pea was also to be blamed for this menace, particularly when other pulses were not available due to crop failure.
Khesari is, otherwise, a very nutritious dal containing 26 to 32 per cent protein and a superior quality of natural antioxidants that reduce the risk of cardiovascular ailments and cancer. Apart from eating its grains as dal, people also cook the succulent leaves of the young grass pea crop as "sag". After two cuttings for "sag", the crop is allowed to grow to bear seeds for use as dal and the rest of the biomass for animal feed.
Besides, being a leguminous crop, grass pea enhances land fertility by absorbing nitrogen from the atmosphere and fixing it in the soil. Little wonder then that khesari is cultivated over nearly one million hectares in states like Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Orissa, Assam, West Bengal and eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Interestingly, despite the ban, traders have continued to buy grass pea directly from producers, chiefly for admixing it with gram flour (besan) since it lends an attractive hue and improves the taste of the products made from it. Besides, it is also commonly used to adulterate pigeon pea (tur or arhar).
Realising the utility of this crop, plant breeders of various local farm research organisations and the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) have taken up the breeding of low-toxin grass pea varieties to make the grains fit for human consumption. According to ICARDA sources, several such varieties are now available. These include Ratan, Prateek, Mahateora, Moti and a few others. But most of these are yet to reach farmers owing to the unavailability of seeds.
To address this issue, the ICARDA, in collaboration with some non-government organisations, has now adopted a novel approach to swap the seeds of indigenous low-yielding, high-toxicity varieties with those of high-yielding, low-toxicity strains. They buy the entire quantity of old seeds from all farmers in a village and replace them with new and safe-to-consume seeds. Farmers' seeds are crushed and returned to them for feeding the livestock. Rajendra Choudhary, project coordinator (lentils) of the ICARDA, feels that this move will help renew seed stocks in most areas that grow grass pea in four to five years.
Significantly, the National Food Security Mission, which is mandated to boost the output of pulses and cereals, has now come forward to collaborate with the ICARDA and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) to promote the cultivation of improved khesari varieties. For this, it has sponsored a project entitled "enhancing grass pea production for safe human food, animal feed and sustainable rice-based production system".
This apart, impressed by the merits of this protein-rich crop, the Planning Commission, too, is reportedly showing an interest in supporting grass pea farming. The National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) has been asked by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India to examine afresh the association between lathyrism and the consumption of khesari dal for reporting to the Planning Commission.
Meanwhile, the demand for removing the ban on grass pea is growing louder. Some states, including Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Maharashtra, have already lifted it. Bihar is also said to be considering doing so. ICARDA experts feel that given the availability of safer varieties now, there is merit in conceding to this demand.