Grasspea (Lathyrus sativus) is a hardy crop, able to withstand extreme environmental conditions such as drought, floods and poor soils. It is grown in pockets in South Asia, southern Europe and the Horn of Africa. Grasspea is used as food, feed and green manure. It is intercropped with other food crops to reduce pest outbreaks, and sown in rice fallows. Grasspea is sometimes cultivated and consumed during famine periods thanks to its ease of cultivation and ability to grow under harsh conditions. However, seeds contain a neurotoxin that can lead to paralysis in adults and brain damage in children when consumed as a major part of an unbalanced diets over long periods. Seeds can be detoxified by various processing methods, and low-neurotoxin varieties developed by exploiting the genetic diversity of the crop.
The history of grasspea domestication is still unclear. Archeological remains have been found in the Balkan region dating to around 8000 BC, in Iraq around 6000 BC, and in India between 2000-1500 BC. Domestication may had taken place alongside other pulses, like pea (Pisum sativum), lentil (Lens culinaris) and bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia). Two small secondary centers of diversity are found in North and South America.
The main international Lathyrus germplasm collection worldwide is maintained at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), with over 4,000 accessions, followed by the Conservatoire Botanique National des Pyrénées et de Midi-Pyrénées (about 4,000 accessions) and the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, India (about 2,600 accessions).
The grasspea global conservation strategy highlights the urgency of upgrading documentation systems, safety duplication and adopting international standards for managing existing collections, as a means towards a rational and effective conservation system.