- Sale and storage of grass-pea is banned by the government of India since 1961 following reports that it contained a neurotoxin causing paralysis of lower limbs.
- It is still being cultivated in flood-prone, semi-arid and underdeveloped regions as it grows in drought as well as water-logged condition, consumed among poor as it comes cheap.
- Researchers have found no direct link of khesari with paralysis; no new cases in three decades; old cases occurred during famine when consumed as staple diet.
Ravi Shankar Rai (35), a farmer in Joga Musahib village of Mohammadabad tehsil in Ghazipur district of Uttar Pradesh, owns eight hectares of rain-fed agricultural land. He cultivates wheat, potato and mustard in winter (the rabi crop season) on about five hectares. The rest of the land is meant for khesari dal or grass-pea or chickling-pea (Lathyrus sativus), locally known as latari, also a rabi crop, grown in winter.
Rai’s harvest in March yielded around 100 quintal of khesari, with zero investment apart from the cost of the seeds. Part of the harvest he kept for his family’s consumption and the rest was sold to farm labourers and a local trader at around Rs. 4,000 to Rs. 4,500 per quintal. This is almost half the price that pigeon pea (toor) and chickpea (chana), the popular pulses in India, are sold for. But the yield is almost three-fold compared to other pulses and requires neither irrigation nor pesticide or fertilisers, making its cultivation much more economical.
Regarded as “the poor man’s pulse”, grass pea, or khesari, helps Rai earn about Rs. 400,000 every year, with almost zero input cost except for seeds which they procure from the previous crop.
But far from bringing him relief, Rai’s khesari crop has him in the middle of a sticky situation. India prohibited the sale and storage of khesari in any form since 1961, based on suggestions made by scientists and epidemiologists that lathyrus consumed in high amount for prolonged periods could cause lathyrism — a condition that could lead to paralysis of the lower limbs due to the presence of a neurotoxin, amino-acid β-N-Oxalyl-L- β DiAminoPropionic Acid (ODAP, also called BOAA). There is no ban on the cultivation of khesari though, because it is used as animal fodder.
After the Centre’s decision, Uttar Pradesh was the first to impose the ban on sale and storage in the state. Many states followed the suit between 1961 till 2010. The ban was followed by massive campaigns across India to warn people of its toxicity. Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal are the only states that don’t have the ban at present. Maharashtra revoked it in 2015.
Although countries like India, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Spain and Mexico had reported a large number of paralytic cases among poor grass-pea consuming populations during famines in the respective countries, farmers of semi-arid and flood-prone areas in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka and Jharkhand have been consuming and selling khesari for decades. “Our major customers are the local farming population and traders of Bihar. Some traders mix it with pigeon-pea and gram-flour, the basic ingredient in a large number of Indian snacks that are eaten across India,” says Suchit Sahu, a trader of khesari in Mohammadabad, and himself a consumer of khesari.
“Unlike other pulses, khesari grows like grass, with no extra effort. The crop is ready in 125 days and the yield is three times more compared to other pulses. For a village like ours, where a proper irrigation network is not available, khesari is a cash crop with an assured income,” says Rai, whose family has been growing and consuming khesari for generations.
Those who consume it, vouch for its safety. Yogendra Narayan Rai (72), retired principal of a college in Ghazipur who now looks after his farms in Joga Musahib, says, “Not a single member in my family or in the entire village has ever suffered a neurological problem. Although now we do consume it in moderate amounts due to reports about its ill effects.” A 2016 news report also quoted Union minister for consumer affairs, food and public distribution Ram Vilas Paswan as never having suffered from any illness despite eating khesari for years.
“Lathyrus saved thousands of human lives during droughts in India, Ethiopia and other developing countries. However, the ban gave it a bad name, relegating it to an option meant only for the poor,” says Dr. Vijay Nath Mishra, head of neurology, Institute of Medical Sciences, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi.
Most farmers in U.P.’s Joga Musahib, which is about 120 km from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency Varanasi, and other villages of Ghazipur (such as Lauadih, Paro, Karimuddinpur, Gondi), Ballia and Deoria grow khesari for quick returns. The poor populace is dependent on this pulse, a rich source of protein, as other pulses cost two to three times more.
According to an estimate of the agriculture ministry, khesari is grown in about 400,000-500,000 hectares of farm area across the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Bihar and West Bengal and its annual production is about 280,000 to 350,000 tonnes.
Is khesari really neurotoxic?
The claim that khesari dal can cause lathyrism is increasingly being challenged by researchers who feel that the ban was not based on systemic research over a prolonged period.
S.L.N. Rao, former head of biochemistry, Osmania University, Hyderabad explains, “Research says humans can metabolise ODAP/BOAA completely. Only long-term excessive consumption of the pulse, containing up to 1 percent of β-ODAP in the seeds, may result in lathyrism. It is toxic to certain animals in high doses also, but not to common laboratory animals like rats, chicks and monkeys.” ODAP concentration in khesari dal ranges from 0.1 percent to 2.5 percent depending upon variety and agro-climatic conditions.
Rao, who included lathyrus as part of his own daily diet 15 years ago, says, “The lathyrism cases reported among humans are two to three decades old and primarily from periods of famine when the poor consumed it as a staple food for 3-6 months. If you consume any pulse as a main source of food for prolonged time it would result in toxicity.”
Consumption of khesari alone doesn’t necessarily result in lathyrism, says a study conducted by Institute of Medical Sciences, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi. The study included 9,345 participants from Mohammadabad block of Ghazipur. Over 97 percent of them had lathyrus as a major source of food. “We did not find a single case of primary walking difficulty. Three cases of post-stroke paralysis, a case of post-Guillain-Barré syndrome (in which the body’s immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system) leg weakness, and a case of recurrent myelitis were found,” says Dr. Vijay Nath Mishra, who was part of the study.
Mishra adds, “It has been reported that excessive consumption (>300–400 g) of grass-pea or khesari continuously for three to four months as a monotonous diet can lead to neurolathyrism. However, if consumed in smaller quantities as a part of a normal mixed diet, its nutritional values can be optimally utilized. In fact, this lentil is good for the heart, knees and infighting impotency.”
In 2014-15, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) commissioned the National Institute of Nutrition to do a study in Chhattisgarh’s Durg, Raipur and Bilaspur districts with a population of 18,000 people among whom khesari production and consumption was high. The mean intake level of khesari was 45 g/day. Eleven suspected cases of lathyrism were found and nine agreed to participate in the study. The study found all of them were above 50 years of age and had a history of consuming grass-pea during drought and their daily consumption was on an average 30-250 g per day in form of gravy and roti for anything between five to 35 years.
Another study conducted in 2014 by the Food and Drug Toxicology Centre, Hyderabad, in Maharashtra’s tribal district Gondia found no cases of neurotoxicity in khesari-eating population except a few old cases were the subjects were above 50 years old.
Studies have also found that risks increases when khesari is consumed raw or boiled or as unripe seeds, but not in the form of gravy, bread and other preparations.
Khesari has several benefits, say scientists
Researchers, like Rao, claim that another amino-acid present in lathyrus, called L-homoarginine, is good for cardiovascular health and can help remedy erectile dysfunction. “L-homoarginine is a better source of sustained generation of nitric oxide, a vaso-dilator, which stays longer in circulation in the body than arginine. It could be a boon to those engaged in endurance sports, stay in higher altitudes and are involved in physical labour because it increases blood supply and, hence, oxygen supply,” says Rao, who, in his personal capacity, wrote to the defence ministry to include khesari in the diet of army personnel posted in high altitudes.
According to Rao, khesari produces more catecholamines (like dopamine and epinephrine) in the body which helps to improve memory and can be used to fight Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s syndromes. Rao says that studies have shown that it could also prevent strokes, improve bone health. Homoarginine level goes up in the last semester of pregnancy and additional supplement through diet would be beneficial. An ICMR study undertaken in 2014-15 also found that the overall prevalence of underweight, stunting and wasting among 1-5-year children was less among lathyrus-consuming population than others.
Farmers demand lifting of ban
The extraordinary jump in pigeon-pea or toor dal prices in 2015-16, following a drop in production of the dal, triggered a debate on the khesari ban and fuelled demands that it be revoked.
Farmers demanded that the ban be lifted so that they could sell their produce freely in the market and a get better price. “We are in no position to negotiate with the local traders (in Ghazipur district) about rates as there are only one or two in the vicinity,” Pankaj Yadav, a farmer from Ghazipur, says. “If the Uttar Pradesh government lifts the ban, we can conduct our trade legally without any intimidation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) department,” says Sahu, whose stock was seized by the FDA eight years ago.
Mishra supports the farmers. “The ban led to a drastic fall in cultivation and consumption but it never ceased. Rather, it led to large scale malpractices such as adulteration to increase the profit margin. Considering its health benefits, the government must lift the ban from lathyrus,” he says.
A local freelance journalist Awanish Rai who has been tracking the issue says, “Not all states have prohibited the sale of lathyrus, which means that there must be evidence that the pulse is non-toxic. The ban has only abetted adulteration rackets, corrupt practices of FDA officials and cops who intimidate traders to make money.”
When asked about his views on the sale and consumption of prohibited pulse, Agriculture Minister of Uttar Pradesh Surya Pratap Shahi said, “Very few farmers in UP, especially in Ghazipur and Deoria, grow grass-pea nowadays that too because the area is flood prone and its cultivation is cheap. Most of it goes for the fodder of cattle. Those who consume it, have a very small amount due to awareness. Cultivation of this crop is not banned anyway. Its sale transport or consumption doesn’t come under the purview of my department.”
“We already have better pulses available in abundance. We need to examine everything before allowing khesari for human consumption,” said Shahi, talking about his views over the ban on the pulse in the wake of recent studies and decision by Maharashtra to revoke the ban.
FSSAI stand remains ambiguous
After demands to revoke the ban rose, the Union agriculture ministry and ICMR proposed that cultivation of three less toxic varieties of Lathyrus (Prateek, Ratan and Matehara with ODAP content in the range of 0.07-0.10 per cent), developed by Indian Council of Agriculture Research, be allowed for cultivation. Following the proposal, the Food Safety and Standard Authority of India (FSSAI) decided to revoke the ban in 2015 although its scientific committee didn’t give conclusive suggestions in this regard.
Mongabay-India tried to speak to FSSAI chief executive officer Pawan Agarwal and was directed us to approach Kumar Anil, Advisor (Standards), who declined to comment and suggested that Mongabay-India write to FSSAI public relations officer Ruchika Sharma.
In her email response, Sharma, says, “There is no change in the status of khesari as of now.” No other query was addressed.
Sources in the FSSAI say that the ban has helped people associated with the import of other pulses such as toor dal. “In the wake of drop in production of popular pulses ensuing imports, traders lobby is benefitted. (Shortage of pulses in India, increases prices, benefitting traders) They would never want the ban lifted,” said one official on condition of anonymity.
Adequate research on neuro-lathyrism is lacking, say some experts. Even though there were voices being raised against the ban, lack of in-depth research on neuro-lathyrism pathogenesis has been a deterrent in any decision to be taken, say FSSAI scientists. A senior scientist of the Indian Institute of Toxicological Research (IITR), Lucknow, requesting anonymity, says, “We can’t take a risk without conclusive research about its long-term effect. Its impact might manifest after two to three decades, and by that time crores of people may already have been affected.”
Director IITR Alok Dhawan says, “It is a fact that lathyrus beyond a certain dose is toxic. If we approve this pulse, it will be very difficult to make consumers, who are mostly villagers, aware that they should eat the legume say less than 50 grams. Moreover, it will not be possible to maintain the prescribed limit of khesari at social events such as weddings.”
Rao differs though. “Enough research work is available with us. All we need is political will,” he concluded.
Mongabay-India reached out to the ICMR director general and the union agriculture ministry and responses are awaited.
Banner image: Lathyrus pulse. Photo by Kanchan Srivastava