In order to assess the influence of nutrient elements on the accumulation of β-N-oxalyl-L-α, β-diaminopropionic acid (β-ODAP; the probable cause of lathyrism) in Lathyrus sativus L. (grass pea), it was first examined under field conditions during the lifespan of a grass pea plant using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). β-ODAP mainly accumulated in young seedlings, in developing and mature seeds and in young leaves, especially in young seedlings. In contrast, all mature leaves, roots, and stems showed a low level of β-ODAP. The β-ODAP accumulation pattern in seedlings grown in a nutrient-deficient solution was highest (3·57 mg/g) in shoots at 7 d growing in the nitrogen-deficient solution and higher compared to the control (2·31 mg/g) in zinc-, calcium-, phosphorus- and molybdenum-deficient shoots (P<0·05). The contents of β-ODAP in seedlings growing in other element-deficient solutions were similar to controls. When the content of β-ODAP in grass pea seedlings fertilized with different forms of organic nitrogen was assayed the results indicated that amino acids such as glutamine and serine, as well as nucleotide nitrogen, all significantly enhanced the accumulation of β-ODAP in young seedlings relative to controls (P<0·05). Taken together, these data suggest that β-ODAP accumulation in grass pea might be related to the level of total free nitrogenous compounds and that nitrogen and phosphate may be the crucial nutrient factors influencing β-ODAP content under field conditions. Thus, the application of appropriate nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers to the soil could decrease the content of β-ODAP in the seeds and leaves of grass pea.