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Alexander Pavlista (left) and Dipak Santra check fenugreek plants growing in research plots at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center.
Fenugreek investigated as potential alternative crop; eventually a farm to pharmacy complex?
By David Ostdiek, Communications Associate
Panhandle Research and Extension Center
SCOTTSBLUFF, Neb. – Fenugreek, an annual legume plant unfamiliar to Americans, is grown almost exclusively in India and neighboring countries for spice and for medicinal uses.
Two scientists at the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center here are studying fenugreek, with the aim of developing new varieties adapted to the High Plains and determining best production practices for high-value, medicinal crop fenugreek with anti-diabetic properties.
At present the project consists of small research plots at the Panhandle Center. But the researchers, Dr. Alexander Pavlista, crop physiologist, and Dr. Dipak Santra, alternative crops breeding specialist, plan to bring in other scientists – from the UNL Food Science and Technology, and eventually the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Eventually it could lead to an unprecedented collaboration to study potential medicines all the way from growing them to making medicine out of them – or, in Pavlista’s words, “from farm to pharmacy.”
“That is unique. There’s no such center in the entire North America.”
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graceum L ) is believed to be native to the Mediterranean region and/or Asia (India). Although it is grown as a spice in most parts of the world, Santra said, the fenugreek species name (foenum graceum means “Greek hay”) indicates its use as forage in the past. Fenugreek is known as one of the oldest medicinal plants in recorded history and the most important. Its seeds have been used as a spice and to treat Type 2 diabetes. The foliage has been used as an herbal medicine. The leaves and seed also have been used to brew tea.
Eighty percent of the world’s fenugreek is produced in one area of India, Pavlista said. Fenugreek was first introduced into North America in the 1990s, with the idea that it could be used as an annual short-season forage crop for cattle in Northern Alberta and Manitoba.
Pavlista said fenugreek’s medicinal properties have been explored in Asia and Europe, but not in America.
Building on the original Canadian work, Santra brought the concept to western Nebraska. A review of literature showed that the climate and soils in the production area in India are very similar to that of western Nebraska, Pavlista said: alkaline soils, low rainfall and humidity, and high temperatures.
“So Dipak came with the idea why don’t we try to see if we can grow fenugreek here as a high-value medicinal crop with a secondary use as a summer forage crop. He decided we need to develop new varieties that would be adapted to western Nebraska.”
Santra has received eight varieties and advanced breeding lines from Canadian government researchers to test adaptability or suitability in this region. He’s also testing a large number of germplasm lines from USDA germplasm center.
Along with new varieties, commercial production of fenugreek would require a base of knowledge about farming practices that apply to this area. That is Pavlista’s area of research. UNL soil and nutrient management specialist Dr. Gary Hergert also is on the team. They are studying three variables, planting date, fertilization and irrigation, with the hope of finding the optimum combination of the three. The next step in research would be fine-tuning production practices, such as nutrients besides nitrogen and timing of irrigation.
A long-term prospect is to integrate these agronomic approaches with scientists in the Food Science and Technology Department to analyze how levels of biochemical active ingredients are influenced by two factors: genetics of plant variety and agricultural production practices. Santra is collaborating with two faculty members at UNL Food Science and Technology, Dr. Devin Rose and Dr. Vicki Schlegel, in an attempt to estimate levels of active ingredients from different varieties and production practices.
Eventually, Santra and Pavlista envision working with the University of Nebraska Medical Center to integrate fenugreek into clinical trials.
They say this project may be the infancy of what could develop into a vertically integrated center in Nebraska to study the production of medicines, beginning with farming practices and extending through to development of pharmaceuticals.
“The idea is to use fenugreek as a model for also looking at other medicinal crops and doing the same thing,” Pavlista added.