Anthropogenic climate change is set to make much of the currently inhabited world a much harsher, hotter, and water-scarce place — while at the same time turning other regions into swamps and flood-prone toxic waste dumps.
Much of India, Pakistan, Southern Europe, Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South America fall under this umbrella — in other words, many heavily populated regions are slated to undergo severe desertification (compounded by unsustainable groundwater use, deforestation, and overgrazing).
Will people be able to continue to live in such regions? If so, how? What will they eat? To hear it from a number of researchers who recently released a book on the matter, a possible partial solution is the prickly pear cactus.
Originally from the Americas (as all cactuses are), the prickly pear cactus now grows all over the world — thanks to its great adaptability and ability to persist in harsh environments where not much else can grow. Importantly, the plant produces edible and water-rich fruits, pads (“leaves”), and seeds, and also produces durable fibers that can be used for textiles.
Owing to these traits, the plant has a very long history of use by various peoples in the regions to which it is native. Elsewhere, though, people tend to simply view the invasive plant as a “weed” — despite its potential value as a source of food, water, animal feed, and fiber — a circumstance that should perhaps change if people are to persist in the many regions due to experience desertification over the coming decades and centuries.
While this subject may not initially be considered to relate to “cleantech” by some people’s standards, I’m inclined to disagree — perhaps the most important and difficult shift in “tech” that will have to occur over the coming decades if truly extreme anthropogenic climate change is to be avoided is the agricultural one.
“It’s impossible to describe how many things you can get out of this plant. … I really believe it’s a miracle crop,” commented Paolo Inglese, a professor at the Department of Agricultural and Forestry Sciences at the University of Palermo in Italy.
Italy, it should be remembered, is one of the countries that’s set to be hardest hit by climate change over the coming century.
Reuters provides more: “The insects that live and feed on the cactus pear provide dye for textiles, foods, and cosmetics while its seeds, fruits, and stem have high levels of nutrients, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, the book said.” (Author’s note: If you drink colored soda, eat orange cheese, etc. then you have very likely already eaten the insects/beetles in question, so there’s no need to get overly picky now.)
Going on: “Cactus pear plantations can function not only as a water reserve but also absorb carbon dioxide in arid and semi-arid regions, it added. 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, experts said. Jose Dubeux Jr, associate professor at the University of Florida, said the cactus’s high water content was ideal for animal consumption in dry areas and could help conserve scarce water sources for humans. They are also easy to grow.”
Anyone who lives in an area where they are invasive can no doubt tell you how easy they are to grow. If you want to spread them, all that you really have to do is gather a few of the cactus pads up and then toss them around the place.
“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,” explained Mounir Louhaichi, the principal researcher 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.”
Commenting on the impending (and also now beginning to intensify) effects of anthropogenic climate change, the book notes that: “If people are to survive in these ever harsher conditions, their crops need to withstand drought, high temperatures and poor soils.”
In other words, it would be prudent in many regions to make a shift away from cereal grains selected during a relatively temperate and water-abundant period of time to an embrace of crops/foods that are better suited to the conditions of a climate-changed planet. As it stands, most of the crops grown commercially in the world nowadays were perhaps well selected for cultivation in a post-glacial environment, but will not serve much use (in most regions) in the hot-earth world that we are fast approaching.
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