Bihar to promote Kesari dal variants with lower levels of neurotoxin

Kesari dal’s production and sale was banned in the country in 1961 for containing a neurotoxin that causes lathyrism – a disease marked by tremors, muscular weakness, and paraplegia or paralysis affecting the lower half of the body
Representational Image. (HT archive)
Representational Image. (HT archive)
Published on Mar 19, 2021 02:23 PM IST
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The Bihar government is trying to revive cultivation of grass pea or Kesari dal in two variants, years after the country lifted ban on the cheap and hardy pulse.

Kesari dal’s production and sale was banned in the country in 1961 for containing a neurotoxin that causes lathyrism – a disease marked by tremors, muscular weakness, and paraplegia or paralysis affecting the lower half of the body. The ban was lifted in 2016 after reports from Indian Council of Medical Research and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India said its consumption in smaller quantities was safe.

Districts of Aurangand, Navada, Jahanabad, Bhojpur, Rohtash, Nalanda and east Champaran are cultivating dal variants with lower levels of the neurotoxin, Oxalyldiaminopropionic acid (ODAP), under a project by the department of biotechnology .

Under the project, the two variants – Ratan and Prateek – that were demonstrated in three districts of Bihar resulted in an ODAP content within the permissible limit of 0.1% and led to higher yields. In the two years under the project, the average yield in Gaya, Lakhisarai, and Patna for Ratan was 12.01 quintals per hectare, for Prateek 11.5 quintals per hectare, and for local variants 9.9 quintals per hectare, according to the project’s progress report.

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The higher yield and low ODAP content as compared to local variants, and low input needed in general for grass pea, increased farm incomes -- an estimated financial gain of 27,500/hectare per season through its cultivation in rice fallows, according to the report. It also addressed the shortage of pulses, provided protein-rich diet to the farmers, and provided feed for livestock.

“Earlier the few farmers who did grow grass peas used it for livestock feed and not for their own consumption. Due to the government ban, there was a negative perception among the people about the dal so we had to work hard to explain that the new variants had very low quantities of ODAP. The project grew slowly as the word spread among farmers,” said Dr Chandan Kumar Panda, who is working on the project at Bihar Agriculture University, the institution leading the project in the state.

Dr Dutta said that the variants with low ODAP content are likely to have more acceptability among people.

In addition, the university also started a seed buy-back policy to develop an effective production chain of quality seeds. This also made growing the variants lucrative for farmer with seeds being bought at the cost of 4,200 per quintal. By the end of March 2020, the university had a stock of 150 quintals of seed.

Farmers Interest Groups were created for the cultivation and buy-back of the seeds. “Once convinced the new grass pea varieties Ratan and Prateek are safe for human consumption, the farmers agreed to take up cultivation of these varieties and also shared this information with fellow farmers,” the report said.

Experts, however, said that the variants were unnecessary as the crops grown in India were already safe for consumption. “The measurement of quantity of ODAP is unnecessary. A person would have to consume 1,100 grams of the pulse every day for three months to possibly get lathyrism, even then it is not a sure shot thing. Once you cook a dal, it expands three times in quantity. Now, tell me who is drinking so much dal? No case of lathyrism has been reported from Bangladesh where there is a very high consumption of Kesari dal,” said Dr Shantilal Kothari, an activist, microbiologist and nutrition expert, who was one of the people who worked to get the ban revoked.

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“Also, any modified variant is likely to go back to producing the same amount of ODAP, depending on soil and climactic conditions,” he said.

Dr Swapan K Dutta, former deputy director general (crop science) at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research said, “The Kesari dal that is currently commercially available does not have high enough ODAP to cause harm to humans and is safe for consumption. The reason for the restrictions at the time (in 1961) was the drought-like conditions leading to higher ODAP production in the crop. In addition, a famine-like situation meant that people ended up having higher quantities of Kesari dal, which is a hardy crop that can survive in a drought, in the absence of anything else.”

He added that lifting of the ban had led to reduction in import of pulses. “In 2014 and 15, we were struggling to meet the demand of dal in the country and were importing enormous quantities each day; today we are in a good shape. We still need to produce more pulses so that they become cheap and the protein rich food source is available to all,” said Dr Dutta.

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