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Cactus: a sustainable and versatile plant for the dry areas

Jun 23,2014

Increasing demands on already-scarce water resources across the world’s dry areas require alternative sources of animal feed – specifically crops that are more efficient uses of water. One alternative with the potential for widespread production is cactus

Increasing demands on already-scarce water resources across the world’s dry areas require alternative sources of animal feed – specifically crops that are more efficient uses of water. One alternative with the potential for widespread production is cactus. ICARDA is now actively promoting this high-energy, nutrient-rich plant as a versatile crop with multiple applications.

With its high water efficiency and content, cactus can sustain livestock through the driest of seasons. A well-developed root system also allows these versatile plants to grow in marginal areas where other forage species often fail. Compared to many other crops and fodder, cactus is easy to establish, maintain, and utilize.

The plant generates a high biomass of green forage – ranging from 30 to 250 tons (fresh cladodes) per hectare in semi-arid areas – which is packed full of essential nutrients, reducing the intense pressure that livestock might otherwise exert on scarce water resources and other rangeland plant species.

Several studies have further demonstrated the additional economic gains that can be generated by incorporating cactus cladodes into ruminant diets, such as improved meat quality, which results from an increase in the proportion of conjugated linoleic acid.

Research has shown that lambs fed on straw supplemented by cactus and saltbush grew at a rate of 80 grams per day in Tunisia; dairy cattle receiving a mixed diet composed of 60% ground cactus cladodes, yielded around 25 liters of milk per day; and South African lambs fed on a diet of sun-dried and coarsely-ground cactus cladodes mixed with hay, maize meal, and molasses meal, grew at similar rates to those receiving a conventional diet – at a fraction of the cost.

Processing fruit and cladodes for human consumption 

In addition to its use as a livestock feed, cactus is increasingly being cultivated for human consumption. Although the plant can be consumed fresh, significant value can be added through processing – providing dryland communities with extra sources of income and enhancing their resilience. This potential is significant: the plant can be pickled; preserved as a jam or marmalade; or dried and milled to produce baking flour.

The extraction of mucilage from fresh cladodes can also form a gelling, emulsifier and fat-replacing agent commonly found in food products such as mayonnaise and candy. The extrusion of seed oil provides a further lucrative niche product to the array of multi-uses – namely high-value organic oil for the cosmetic sector.

Developing a viable agro-industry

Fulfilling this potential relies on behavioral change.  Behavioral change is dependent on knowledge, attitudes, and a supportive environment.  Rural communities require an effective enabling environment, along with training. Strong and effective government support is also needed – reforms are required to construct new infrastructure and build the capacity of producers. Additional elements of a reform package should also include:

-          Publicity campaigns to promote the potential of cactus as a versatile and multi-use crop, exploiting various forms of media

-          Appropriate pathogen-free planting material to establish new orchards

-          The effective maintenance of cactus orchards, particularly after-care to prevent the plant’s two main pathogens – Cochineal and Cactoblastis – from gaining a foothold

-          The development of new markets for a range of cactus-related products

-          Training opportunities for stakeholders, equipping them with the knowledge and skills to process cactus pear cladodes and fruits.     

Although an agro-industry based on the cultivation of cactus is gaining momentum, its ultimate success will depend on a vibrant primary production sector – with producers operating at small to large scales – and government support.

The potential gains from cactus production across the world’s dry areas could be immense. However, efforts are still needed to ensure the plant’s potential is effectively realized. Properly executed, these efforts offer an opportunity to not only raise incomes and improve livelihoods, but strengthen resilience.

As dry areas are forced to contend with higher temperatures and even more intense and variable rainfall resilience is something that is likely to become even more important in the years ahead and increased cactus production in dry areas is one option to facilitate this.