Reducing Toxicity of Grass Pea

A collaborative research project of the John Innes Centre (JIC), the Biosciences eastern and central Africa International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub, the International Center for Agriculture Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) and the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) has been awarded £1.2m funding by the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). The project entitled Unlocking the Potential of Grass pea for Resilient Agriculture in Drought Prone Environments (UPGRADE) aims to improve grass pea for low neurotoxin content and explores its potential as fodder crop in Africa.


Grass pea is extremely drought tolerant. It performs well even under the extreme environmental conditions in which other crops suffer heavily if not die. Therefore, grass pea has been one of the most important crops for poor subsistence farmers in some of the most vulnerable parts of the world. However, grass pea contains a neurotoxin (β-ODAP) that causes a neurological disorder called lathyrism in humans and domestic animals. If consumed as the main food during a prolonged period of malnourishment, it can cause irreversible paralysis.


The project will utilize available grass pea genetic resources and develop a TILLING mutant population: a set of thousands of grass pea lines each carrying different mutations, such as reduced toxin levels and desirable agronomic traits, that can be screened quickly to develop new non-GM varieties. The project will also explore plant transformation and gene editing techniques to speed up the process of crop improvement. Non-GM grass pea lines will be evaluated for toxins level and other important agronomic traits for food and feed crops.


The BecA-ILRI Hub will evaluate the suitability of grass pea as a forage crop for mix/inter-cropping with the “wonder grass” Brachiaria. The ability of grass pea to capture atmospheric nitrogen could improve soil fertility and enhance sustainability of Brachiaria grass, while grass pea’s high protein content could improve forage nutritive values. The UPGRADE project will combine lab- and glasshouse-based research in the UK with field studies in Ethiopia and Kenya to allow the rapid integration of the new, low-toxin varieties into existing breeding programmes in sub-Saharan Africa.


Improved grass pea will provide safe food and nutritious livestock feed for poor subsistence farmers in some of the most vulnerable parts of the world.



Principle Investigator from BecA-ILRI Hub:

Sita Ghimire: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



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