A research group at the John Innes Centre have been awarded £1.2 million from the BBSRC to fund trials of their new grass pea varieties across Sub-Saharan Africa.

The grass pea is the epitome of a double-edged sword. A high-protein crop which is resistant to drought, flooding and high temperatures seems like a dream come true in developing countries. However, this hardy pea has a deadly secret: if eaten as a large part of the diet, it can cause paralysis and brain damage. Despite this, people living in drought or flood-stricken countries are forced to eat it as alternatives have yet to be discovered. Professor Cathie Martin, who leads a research group based at the John Innes Centre, has a solution to this toxic conundrum.

Drought is a major cause of famine in sub-Saharan Africa.

Drought is a major cause of famine across sub-Saharan Africa.

Professor Cathie Martin, based at the John Innes Centre, leads the international project.

“We have developed safe grass pea varieties that can be adopted by smallholders and farmers in regions of the world where this is an important crop.”

The Martin group have taken a step closer to achieving this goal after securing £1.2 million from the BBSRC under the Global Challenges Research Fund. The money will fund rolling out of the new varieties in Ethiopia and Kenya, in collaboration with local farmers and researchers.

The potential of the grass pea doesn’t stop there. The group are continuing research into varieties with further desirable characteristics, with a view to make it a staple crop across the globe. With the prospects of climate change casting a dark shadow over modern agriculture, this project could mark a turning point in the poisonous past of the grass pea.