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The Lathyrus sativus is the Voldemort of the lentil community. In India, the plant is better known as khesari dal. You might be familiar with her cousin, the equally toxic (but visually charming) sweet pea plant.  Like most villains, the khesari is a tough little creature, and it manages to be one of the last to stick it out in times of famine. And that’s what it waits for: humanity’s weakest moment. When famine comes and individuals find themselves surviving on a diet of these pulses, they will likely develop a degenerative disease called Lathyrism. The toxin in the lentil hits the spinal cord and the lower limbs first, making it difficult for a person to walk. It eventually spreads and to cause convulsions, paralysis and even death.

Three food-related neurotoxic disorders, lathyrism, konzo, and tropical ataxic neuropathy, are linked to illiteracy, poverty, population growth, and conditions like drought, famine, and war.

  • Lathyrism is an irreversible, nonprogressive spastic paraparesis resulting from excessive consumption of peas of Lathyrus sativus.

  • Lathyrus sativus contain a neurotoxin, beta-N-oxalyl amino-L-alanine (synonym beta-N-oxalyl-L-alpha,beta-diaminopropionic acid).

Historical note and nomenclature

  Lathyrism results from excessive consumption of the chickling pea, Lathyrus sativus, and certain related species. It is one of the oldest neurotoxic diseases known to mankind. Devastating neurolathyrism epidemics have occurred during major famine crises in various parts of the world. Hippocrates (460 to 377 BC) is believed to have been aware of the toxic pea causing persistent paralysis of the legs. In 1873, the Italian scientist Contani coined the term “lathyrismo” (lathyrism) in patients with progressive spastic paraparesis. In 1947, Kessler published a vivid account of the toxicity of L sativus among the Romanian prisoners of war during the Second World War 

The Lathyrus sativus is the Voldemort of the lentil community. In India, the plant is better known as khesari dal. You might be familiar with her cousin, the equally toxic (but visually charming) sweet pea plant.  Like most villains, the khesari is a tough little creature, and it manages to be one of the last to stick it out in times of famine. And that’s what it waits for: humanity’s weakest moment. When famine comes and individuals find themselves surviving on a diet of these pulses, they will likely develop a degenerative disease called Lathyrism. The toxin in the lentil hits the spinal cord and the lower limbs first, making it difficult for a person to walk. It eventually spreads and to cause convulsions, paralysis and even death.

Men are disproportionately affected.

Clinical manifestations

  Lathyrism is a form of irreversible, nonprogressive spastic paraparesis associated with poorly understood degenerative changes in the spinal cord. The patient often awakens one morning to find weakness of the lower limbs, causing him or her to fall. Severe cramps often accompany or herald the weakness, which can be precipitated by sudden physical exertion or exposure to inclement weather. The acute phase lasts for about a month and residual symptoms persist. In a few patients, the disease advances subacutely over a month followed by slow progression. Some patients experience a prolonged slow progression

 

If not for its toxic blemish, khesari has the makings of both a super food and a wonder crop.  Khesari contains the highest protein and iron content of any pulse. More importantly, it is drought and disease resistant and requires little care, making it an “insurance” crop in years when drought and disease decimate more delicate crops.

For India, which each year faces a growing demand and supply crisis, khesari’s virtues are significant. India is the largest producer and consumer of pulses (crops harvested solely for their dried seed), and virtually all Indians include them in at least one meal each day, the poor relying on them more because they are a cheap source of protein. But of the million tons of lentils needed to meet demand, India produces only about half that much. Several successive years of poor lentil harvests compounded the problem, and India has lately taken to importing lentils from Ethiopia, Australia, and Canada. But importing isn’t cheap, and India’s least well off confront daunting prices at the market.

In this climate, khesari seems only just out of reach for those trying to solve India’s food insecurity. Khesari has so much potential that Australian scientists have been working for years to develop a form of the plant that is safe for human consumption. It’s cheap. It’s abundant. It virtually grows itself. The only problem is. . .  What’s a little toxin in the diet anyways, right?    It’s the perfect money-maker. In small doses, the khesari is harmless.

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