Why are Cacti Important?

Cacti are tougher than most plants; adapted to extreme conditions, able to survive in areas where nothing else will grow. But they have little or no value for agriculture or human livelihoods – or so people thought, until the early 1980s. Since then, a series of studies have documented the many ways in which indigenous communities have used cacti for centuries; and identified potential new uses for different parts of the plant.

  • Forage crops, providing low-cost livestock feed in areas where no grazing is  available
  • Foods – cactus pads are consumed fresh, cooked or pickled, in several  countries
  • Fruits – processing facilities exist in Italy, Tunisia, Morocco, South Africa,  Mexico, Chile and elsewhere
  • Cochineal dye, produced from insects that live and feed on Opuntia cacti,  used in the textile, foods and cosmetics industries
  • Medicine – several cactus species have been shown to be effective against a  range of disease.

The term cactus (Cactaceae) refers to a group of approximately 1,600 species in 130 genera subdivided in the three subfamilies Pereskioideae, Opuntioideae and Cactoideae. The most common and widespread Opuntia genus regroups a number of more than 300 species.

Cacti can grow in severely degraded soils, which are inadequate for other crops. Opuntia spp. have a great capacity to withstand severe dry conditions and are ideal for responding to global environmental changes. Their root characteristics avoid wind and rain erosion, encouraging their growth in degraded areas. The importance of cacti is reinforced with regard to the wide range of possible use of cacti. Indeed, they can be used: (i) as forage, (ii) as vegetable where young cladodes are consumed fresh or cooked, (iii) as fruit where a sustainable horticultural system is achieved in several countries (Italy, Tunisia, Morocco, South Africa, Mexico, Chile, etc.), (iv) as cochineal where carminic acid, a natural red dye accepted by health authorities worldwide is obtained, (v) as processed foods where a potential market for fruit, and “nopalitos” to produce concentrated foods, juices, liquors, semi-processed and processed vegetables, food supplements and the cosmetics industry might be a significant source of income, and (vi) for medicinal Applications: Promising results for the treatment of gastritis, diabetes, hypercholesterolemia, and for obesity.