Big gains from pigeon pea

A PLANT long-neglected by scientists is now being acclaimed as the answer to the developing world's protein needs and as a potential money-spinner. Pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan) contains as much as 28 per cent protein and is generously peppered with vitamins, minerals and fats, making it an excellent complement to cereal-based diets which are usually protein -deficient.

The plant is found in many parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa. In India, the world's leading producer of pigeon pea, the crop is grown in small farms for personal consumption or is sold in the village market, for local consumption. But Kenya, the world's second largest producer of pigeon peas, is exporting the vegetable to Britain, exemplifying the economic gains that small farmers of the developing world could make from this crop (New Scientist, Vol 146, No 1975).

Laxman Singh, who breeds pigeon peas at the Hyderabad-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), says they contain more minerals and 10 times more fat, 5 times more vitamin A and 3 times more vitamin C, compared to ordinary peas.

But for some strange reasons, the plant has been ignored by researchers. As a result, no high yielding varieties of this crop have been developed and no effort made to contain a caterpillar pest (Helicoverpa armigera) that destroys 30-60 per cent of the yield in some regions.

Besides its high nutritive value, pigeon pea has other uses - it is good for the soil and after the pods are harvested the plant can be used as a cooking fuel and also as thatching material for the farmers' huts. Singh says that the plant provides about 40 kg of nitrates per ha for the next crop. The roots of pigeon pea plants help recycle phosphate nutrients in the soil.

Several developing countries could benefit as the worth of pigeon peas becomes more widely recognised and an effort is made to develop improved varieties of this plant.