Cactus is a plant with amazing qualities. But, regrettably, it has failed to draw attention in India. It can grow under the harshest of environments, where practically nothing else grows; can provide animal feed even during the worst droughts; can be processed into numerous commercially-lucrative speciality products; and can significantly absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide, thereby helping abate global warming.
Most Indians, however, perceive cactus as an ornamental plant. But elsewhere, in at least 20 countries, it is cultivated as a commercial crop under dry agro-ecological conditions, similar to those in India’s arid zones. Among the many cactus species, Opuntia ficus-indica – popularly known as cactus pear or Indian fig – is deemed most suitable for commercial farming because it is free of thorns. Apart from the fact that cacti need very little water to thrive, they outdo most other plants when it comes to efficiently converting energy into usable biomass.
Besides, cactus is a perennial plant. It can regenerate itself, after its padded stems – technically called cladode – and other parts have been harvested for use as animal feed; or after it has produced a wide range of products such as juice, marmalade, candy, red dye, oil, shampoo, soap, lotion, and medicinal preparations for treating high cholesterol, obesity, colitis and so on. As forage, it is a good source of digestible energy, vitamins and water. Its biomass, 90 per cent of which is water, helps meet part of the livestock’s need for water. Therefore, it can help save many animal lives during droughts.
India is believed to have great potential for growing Opuntia as a cultivated crop in the arid zones for subsistence as well as market-oriented farming. Nearly 90 cactus experts in the country and abroad, who gathered recently in New Delhi for an international workshop on the cactus crop with special focus on India, felt that nearly two million hectares of the country’s arid and semi-arid land can potentially be put under cactus farming. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has promised to provide the needed research-and-development backup for bringing at least 10,000 hectares under cactus in the next four or five years. The agriculture ministry has also offered assistance to promote cactus farming in drought-prone tracts.
The International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), which organised the global workshop in collaboration with the ICAR and other Indian agricultural organisations, recently introduced 46 species of Opuntia in India. These are being tested at the Jodhpur-based Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI) to assess their adaptability to Indian conditions. ICARDA’s regional coordinator for South Asia and China, Dr Ashutosh Sarker, says that, to begin with, cactus cultivation would be promoted chiefly to feed livestock, protect sandy soils against erosion and absorb carbon dioxide to avert climate change. Also, the growers can possibly make extra money through carbon trading. Two projects aimed at achieving some of these objectives have been finalised and may be launched next year. Funding and other support for these would come from the ICAR and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. Apart from that, cactus is believed to hold the key to solving some of the critical woes of the Bundelkhand region, which recently made headlines because of widespread farmers distress. Besides constraints like water scarcity and old technology, the farmers there suffer heavy losses owing to damage to the crops by wild and domestic animals, which, as part of the tradition, are let loose to graze wherever they wish. Bio-fencing with spiny and tall varieties of cactus can protect the crops from these animals. Such bio-barriers, therefore, can be useful in areas where wild animals pose a major threat to crops. Many of these areas are infested with blue bulls (Neel Gai), which have a special liking for pulse crops.
Once cactus is established as a farmed crop, investments can, hopefully, come to make cactus-based commercial products, some of which – such as cactus oil and red dye – have thriving export markets. Vietnam is one of the largest consumers of cactus oils. In Europe, these oils are sold for around ^800 per litre. China grows cactus in a big way to produce natural dye. Indian entrepreneurs would surely not miss such opportunities.