Researchers from the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) have been studying the potential value of cactus pear. The plant’s high tolerance for heat and low water use makes it more resilient for production in hot, dry regions. As climate conditions continue to shift, cactus pear may be a viable option for areas that become unsuitable for other production. The overall goal of the research has been to identify crops that will be more resilient to climate stress and determine their viability.
“We look at a variety of different crops. Opuntia, or cactus pear, is one of them and the reason that we’re interested in Opuntia is that it is a CAM crop. CAM stands for ‘Crassulacean Acid Metabolism,’” said John Cushman, UNR Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “They use only one-fifth the water that other crops like rice or spinach would use. So, that water-use efficiency is what we’re really interested in.”
The research was funded by UNR’s Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The five-year study was the first long-term field trial examining Opuntia as a scalable bioenergy feedstock in the U.S. Cushman and his team discovered that cactus pear has a variety of attributes that could provide value as a commercial crop.
“The interest there is that it is highly productive. It’s going to use a much lower water amount and it can be used for food, forage for animals and livestock, and ultimately it can also be used for a bioenergy crop,” said Cushman. “The last thing that it can be used for is terrestrial carbon sequestration to try and combat the effects of pumping a lot of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.”
Cactus pear research will continue with an evaluation of the economics of production. Prior to that, researchers will be performing a life cycle analysis to get a better understanding of productivity. Cushman said they will be looking specifically at the production of biofuels. Other evaluations of cactus pear will include the potential for automating the planting and harvesting process. Each area of research will be part of the overall economic analysis of production.