DUBAI // Cactus will soon be on the menu for the UAE's animals as scientists start planting prickly pears on farms across the country.
The move is part of a project by the Dubai-based International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (Icarda) to grow cheaper and more water-efficient feed for animals.
Also known as Opuntia, the prickly pear cactus grows with much less water than other plants, such as Rhodes grass and alfalfa.
"Generally, [Opuntia] uses around 1,500 cubic metres [1.5 million litres] of water per hectare per year," said Dr Azaiez Ouled Belgacem, a rangeland and forage expert at Icarda and head of the project.
"Other forages consumer more than 30,000m cubic metres [30m litres]."
The project began in 2005 with 38 varieties of the cactus shipped to Oman from Tunisia, Italy, Mexico, Algeria and Morocco.
Five years later, the UAE established its own research station in Dibba with more than 400 cactuses.
The centre aims to use these to find the most drought-resistant, salt-tolerant and water-efficient plant which bears fruit the animals find tastiest.
Scientists have been researching its genes since 2005.
"There is a variation within each of the cactus species," Dr Belgacem said. "We are studying their genetic variability to select the ones that consume the least water while producing better quality forage."
In 1998, the Food and Agriculture Organisation determined those genetic differences. Scientists in the UAE say they are a year away from getting results.
"We're studying the behaviour of different types. Some are more resistant to salinity, or drought, than others, while some are more suitable for fruit production and feed," Dr Belgacem said.
Between April and October, the centre planted between 105 and 200 plants of each type on three private farms in Al Ain, Ajman and Al Aweer, 35 kilometres from Dubai.
Originating from Central America, the cactus is cheaper than other species and easy to propagate.
"A spineless stem, or pad, is planted in the soil and you water it with half a litre a day," Dr Belgacem said.
In two to three months, the mother plant will have produced new pads that can be planted out separately.
"After a month, you'll get two to three new pads and the cactus will be less than 50 centimetres high," said Dr Belgacem.
But it will take a year before the cactus is full-grown, with 15 to 20 pads.
"Then, we cut small pieces for the animals. Cutting the whole plant would harm it," he said.
It will take another year before the project can start feeding animals.
Rich in sugar, the cactus can be made into feed blocks, mixed with other nutrients such as date palm byproducts, for fibre, or fish, for protein.
"We want to present it to animals as a balanced diet. Most of the forage grown is water-consuming or very expensive to import," De Belgacem said.
And it can be used in cosmetics. "Many powders and products are used from cactus. They can also be used as fruit for humans," he added.
So far, the centre has identified five types of the Opuntia that seem more promising to grow as feed in the UAE's climate.
"The cactus is considered the camel of the vegetation world," Dr Begacem said.
"It consumes less water than other species and has several mechanisms to decrease the loss of water through evaporation."
Experts also believe the plant could be a useful source of animal feed.
"It's a very drought-tolerant plant, producing a maximum of biomass with a minimum of water," said Dr Willem Van Cotthem, a scientific consultant for desertification and sustainable development in Belgium. "It is very easy to propagate and multiply but [not many] people are aware of its existence."