Species Name
Lathyrus sativus


Local Name(s)
Guaya (Amargna), Grass Pea, Chickling Pea, 'Vetch' (English)

General description
Grass Pea is a drought resistant, high yielding nitrogen rich pulse with high-quality protein and carbohydrate. The seeds and the leaves are normally known as an animal feed.

Edible part(s), preparation methods and palatability
L. sativus is known as a famine food in chronic food shortage areas because of its very low water requirement. It is commonly consumed boiled or roasted. Its flour is used to make bread. Grass Pea is also used in the traditional dish called 'wot'. It may provide the entire diet in times of food shortage. In normal times it is mixed with other cereals like wheat and rice. Consumed excessively, Grass Pea causes irreversible crippling effects, a disease known as lathyrism.

Found in the Northern and Central highlands of Ethiopia.

Propagation Method(s) 
Propagates by seed, direct sowing. 

Sample location (s)
(1) Wag Hamra; (2) North and South Welo (Amhara Region); (3) North Gonder (Amhara Region)

The consumption of Grass Pea in North and South Welo and the continuous increase of cases of human lathyrism, especially in the highlands above 2500m, have repeatedly been reported. This attractive survival crop is increasingly consumed in drought prone areas. The disease occurring after excessive consumption affects particularly the poorest and most active population segment. With continuous crop failures in the Welo area since 1995, a new lathyrism epidemic crippled at least 2000 people, leaving nearly one in five victims a 'crawler', i.e. the victim lost all ability to walk. But maybe soon poor people in famine stroke areas such as Welo in Ethiopia may not have to fear lathyrism from grass pea anymore. The International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo, Syria, succeeded in breeding virtually toxin free cultivars of L. sativus. The research took 15 years until it became possible in the beginning of 2000 to produce strains of L. sativus offering the yield, taste, and environmental ruggedness of the original plant.

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L. sativus ready to harvest in a farmer field in North Gonder, February 2001

Farmer harvesting L. sativus in North Gonder for human consumption, February 2001

L. sativus seeds (left) of which the toxin content has been significantly reduced by conventional breeding techniques

After soaking grass peas for 10 minutes in hot water, an Ethiopian woman lays the legumes out to dry. Though soaking and heating are used to detoxify these seeds, new data show that a large share of the poisonous amino acid in them can survive this processing.

The man standing is seriously affected with lathyrism and requires two canes to walk.