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Experts call prickly pear cactus a ‘miracle’ crop for dry regions

Thomson Reuters Foundation

Experts say the prickly pear cactus — which decorates homes around the world — could help alleviate hunger in arid regions due to its multiple uses.

“It’s impossible to describe how many things you can get out of this plant. … I really believe it’s a miracle crop,” said Paolo Inglese, a professor at Italy’s University of Palermo.

As climate change brings erratic rainfall and prolonged droughts, countries should look to the cactus pear, which can grow in desert conditions, experts said.

Its fruits and flat pads can be eaten by humans and animals. Its seeds, fruits and stem have high levels of nutrients, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. The insects that live and feed on it provide dye for textiles, foods and cosmetics.

Cactus pear plantations can function not only as water reserves but also absorb carbon dioxide in arid and semi-arid regions.

The cactus is already a well-established ingredient in Latin American cuisine, where it is eaten fresh, cooked or pickled. However, its use as fodder is less widespread.

The plant is now being cultivated in a handful of countries, including Brazil, Ethiopia, South Africa, Jordan, Morocco and India.

Jose Dubeux Jr., associate professor at the University of Florida, said the cactus’s high water content is ideal for animal consumption in dry areas and could help conserve scarce water sources for humans.

They are also easy to grow.

“If you take a cactus pad and you throw it like a Frisbee, it will land flat and make roots from whatever it is that touches the soil,” said Mounir Louhaichi, principal scientist at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

“It can grow anywhere. It doesn’t need irrigation, because it’s made out of water. It makes use of marginal land.

“That’s why it’s a miracle plant.”

A new book, co-published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and ICARDA, says the rural poor and smallholders are most heavily affected by changes in the climate. “If people are to survive in these ever harsher conditions, their crops need to withstand drought, high temperatures and poor soils,” it says, adding that the prickly pear is ideal for such conditions.