Introduction : Almost 53.4 per cent of India’s land area comprises of arid and semi-arid regions. The climato-vegetational condition of the arid and semi-arid zones indicates a very extreme temperature, very low and erratic precipitation, high wind speed, high evapotranspiration, scarcity of water, low content of organic matter and presence of soluble salt in the soil leading to very low productivity of agricultural crops and poor availability of natural resources of the area, which affects the livelihood of the local community. To address this critical issue, scientists across the world have been scouting for suitable crop species that can not only grow in hostile agro-climatic conditions but also provide food, fodder and other economic benefits.
Opuntia ficus-indica species known as cactus pear, is a climate-resilient smart crop, which has been introduced in recent times in India. It has multiple uses especially for our farmers in arid or rainfed regions. It is tolerant to drought, high temperature and frost and is adaptive to a hot arid environment because of xerophytic characters, enabling the plants to survive prolonged periods of drought. It is a multipurpose plant species which is easy to establish. Cactus cladodes are rich in minerals like Ca, Mg, Na, P and K and have moderate protein and fibre content. Cactus contains high percentage of water (85- 90 per cent) and hence when fed to livestock, the water requirement of animals is reduced by 40 to 50 per cent. Cactus can generate carbon sequestration of 30 T CO2e/ha/year under sub-optimal growing conditions. Being a multipurpose crop with use as food, fodder, fuel, fertilizer and fashion, cactus achieves some of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This has made this plant a climate-smart crop and an integral aspect of agricultural economy in arid and semi-arid regions of India as well as the world.
Uses of Cactus: Cactus has capacity to produce good biomass throughout the year using minimum water. Cactus and its fruits are now becoming a source of agro-foods available in more than 50 products i.e. marmalades, juices, nectars, candies, frozen pulp, alcoholic beverages, pickles, sauces, shampoos, soaps and lotions. Cactus plant has medicinal uses such as an antacid, arterial sclerosis, anti-cholesterolic, prostatis and hyperglycemia. It has proven potential for diversification and improving livelihood for sustainability in dry lands of India. Cactus is a good species for soil and water conservation, rangeland and marginal land rehabilitation and crop land management. Against the backdrop of ongoing climate change, prolonged droughts, land degradation and desertification, this hardy crop demonstrates significant social, environmental and socio-economic benefits.
The adaptation trials at BAIF campuses in Wagholi, Maharashtra, Lakkihalli, Karnataka, Nanodara, Gujarat and Barmer, Rajasthan has highlighted the adaptability and suitability of cactus in prevailing soil and climatic conditions and also demonstrated the potential of cactus as a source of fodder for animals. Currently, 3.20 ha cactus plantations are being maintained on various campuses and planting material is being supplied to various agencies.
BAIF has developed e-learning module, video clipping, booklet, brochure as suitable training and extension material for promotion of cactus and also published research papers in International Journals and popular articles on cactus cultivation in the local print media.
BAIF’s Research and Development work on Cactus: BAIF Development Research Foundation initiated a comprehensive project on Cactus with NABARD support in 2015. BAIF has standardized the nursery techniques and tissue culture protocol for mass multiplication, production technology, protocol for feeding cactus to livestock and financial viability of cactus cultivation and nursery development at BAIF’s Central Research Station, Urulikanchan, Pune. A cactus arboretum with more than 100 accessions has been established and evaluated for adaptability, growth, yield and nutritional performance.
The research outcomes of this project have been transferred to farmers’ fields in arid and semi-arid areas of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka. More than 800 field demonstrations have been developed on farmers’ fields and the growth and yield performance monitored periodically. The farmers are currently utilising cactus cladodes for feeding their goat, sheep, cattle and buffaloes. These plantations are also acting as decentralised nurseries for supply of planting material. BAIF have also supplied more than one lakh cladodes to Krishi Vigyan Kendra, State Agriculture University, Government Seed farms and NGOs to promote cactus as a fodder for livestock.
Cactus-fresh biomass yield ranges from 20 to 35 tons/ha at two years of plant growth and largely depends on the soil type and management practices adopted by the farmers. The subsequent increase in biomass yield was also noticed over a period of plant growth. Cactus feeding trials were undertaken in small and large ruminants and it revealed high palatability in goats as well as in milking cows. The results indicated that 3-4 kg of cactus was voluntarily consumed by adult goats whereas 7-8 kg of cactus were consumed by milking cows per day along with roughages. Hence, cactus has replaced 25 percent of green fodder. The average daily gain in body weight and overall growth were observed to be satisfactory during the feeding of cactus.
Cactus for fruits : Some of the fruit type accessions have been identified among the available germplasm collections in cactus arboretum at BAIF, Urulikanchan. Besides fruit yield, quality parameters including colour, taste, sugar content and nutritional properties of the fruits are being studied to identify the best accession for further multiplication and exploration for commercial fruit production as well as value added product development.
Cactus for Bio leather and Biogas/ Bioenergy : For exploring cactus as bio leather, collaborative research with CSIR-National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology (NIIST), Trivandrum and M/S Streekaya Services Pvt. Ltd. Mumbai, is in progress. NIIST has developed a protocol for bio leather (vegan leather) production, studied its properties and economics of production. Cactus pears meet the criteria of energy crop and biogas production is 0.36 m3 kg/DM having 55 to 70 % methane (CH4). The slurry coming out from the digester is a very good fertilizer and can be used in crop production. The work is being taken forward in collaboration with International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), ICAR institutes and a few start-up companies.
Future prospects : In vast areas of India which are rainfed, cactus can be grown with minimum availability of water. The Ministry of Land Resources and Watershed, Government of India is showing considerable interest in promoting cactus plantation on available watershed areas/ degraded land / waste land / rangelands in arid and semi-arid regions across the country. There is a need to establish a decentralised cactus nursery on farmers’ fields and for Government institutes to cater to the increasing demand of planting material. Cactus as a raw material can be utilised for multiple uses like green fodder, community biogas and bio CNG, bio leather and pharmaceutical and industrial products.