Researchers eye cactus as a drought-tolerant crop for biofuel and more

Agricultural activities use lots of water around the country each year as many areas don't receive enough rainfall to adequately water crops without resorting to alternative watering methods. Researchers from the University of Nevada have been researching drought-tolerant crops that could be used for biofuel, sustainable foods, and forage crops. The team specifically looked at cactus called Opuntia ficus-indica because the plant has high heat tolerance and requires little water.

Of all the crops the University investigated, Opuntia ficus-indica produces the most fruit while using up to 80 percent less water than some traditional crops. The fact that it uses significantly less water than other crops could mean that it could be grown for fuel and food in areas that hadn't been able to grow many sustainable crops in the past. The researchers see a future where areas will be getting dryer due to climate change, and traditional crops like rice, corn, soybeans, and alfalfa may not be able to grow due to lack of water and heat.

Research on the spineless cactus pear was funded in part by the US Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture. It was the first long-term field trial of the cactus species in the US running for five years. The crop was specifically investigated as a scalable bioenergy feedstock to replace fossil fuel. Currently, corn and sugarcane are major bioenergy crops, but they use 3 to 6 times more water than a cactus pear.

The study found that the cactus pear productivity is on par with those bioenergy crops while requiring a fraction of the water and having higher heat tolerance making them more climate-resilient. Researchers say cactus works as a bioenergy crop because it is versatile and perennial. When not harvested for biofuel, it also acts as a land-based carbon sink removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.