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Promoting Spineless Cactus in Odisha: A Case of Frailed Priorities

Cacti, a category of plants renowned for their resilience in dry climates such as deserts, thrive in arid and semi-arid regions where water is scarce. These plants have evolved ingenious adaptations to survive harsh conditions, notably their spines which serve multiple purposes. Primarily, these spines minimize water loss by reducing surface area and also act as a deterrent against predators.

Interestingly, some cactus species have gradually shed their spines, possibly as a response to altered environmental pressures or reduced threats from predators. Moreover, humans have selectively bred thornless cactus variants for decorative and ornamental use, showcasing the adaptability and versatility of these remarkable plants.

The name originally evolved with reference to a spiny plant making spines as one of the essential characteristics of these plants. They are native to the Americas but over the centuries got naturalized in many parts of the world including Odisha where people call it as “Nagapheni” which is entertained either in the home garden (distinguished varieties like that with a globe shape) or as a live green fence.

Their use has been predominantly ornamental though some are used for food, fodder, and/or other purposes too. While cactus spines themselves are not inherently poisonous, they can indeed induce considerable discomfort, inflammation, or even complications upon penetrating the skin.

The cultivation of cactus as a fodder crop serves as a strategic solution to combat the widespread shortage of green fodder, especially prevalent during the scorching summer months. In regions where soaring temperatures, coupled with scarcity of fodder and water, pose significant threats to the food security of livestock, cactus emerges as a resilient alternative.

Cactus demonstrates great adaptive traits under harsh agro-climatic conditions in many dryland areas, including in large parts of India, and thrives where no other crops can grow. It is also an effective alternative to prevent soil erosion in barren degraded lands where no other green cover (plantations) survives. Cactus cladodes and fruits have human food and medicinal values. Several health and beauty products are also developed from it and it is being implemented on an industrial scale in China, Mexico, and Italy among many other countries. 

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Exploring the Agricultural Landscape of Odisha

Odisha has 17.53 lakh ha of degraded land, and 1.95 lakh ha are being added every year. Land degradation is exacerbated due to the impacts of climate change and threatens agricultural productivity, water quality, bio diversity, sustainable development, and the living conditions of humans and animals. The Economic Survey of Odisha published in June 2019 reveals that the share of Net Sown Area has decreased from 36.12% in 2007-08 to 34.4% in 2017-18, while the area under fallow land has increased from 5.04% in 2007-08 to 6.76% in 2017-18. 

With this background, ICARDA and the Government of Odisha (Directorate of Soil Conservation and Watershed Development, Department of Agriculture and Farmers’ Empowerment) joined hands to increase the productivity of degraded hilly and wastelands and winter fallows. Towards this end, the initiative has been taken, in collaboration with different research and resource agencies to promote spineless cactus in degraded wastelands and grasspea in winter crop fallows. 

Reevaluating Agricultural Strategies

Spineless Cactus
Spineless Cactus (Source)

Dr. Ashutosh Sarker, a lead scientist of ICARDA in India, Odisha has 17.53 lakh ha of degraded land, and 1.95 lakh ha are being added every year. Land degradation is exacerbated due to the impacts of climate change and threatens agricultural productivity, water quality, biodiversity, sustainable development, and the living conditions of humans and animals.

Spineless cactus may be useful as a crop in those areas where irrigation cannot be developed and food and fodder crops cannot be grown because of highly degraded and arid conditions but certainly not in a State like Odisha, where the average annual rainfall is over 1200 mm. As a fodder it takes care of the water requirement of the animal as it has high moisture content. It also has high carbohydrate and mineral content.

In 2021, ICARDA introduced spineless cactus as a fodder in the degraded hills of Odisha as part of the India-ICARDA Collaborative Programme known as ‘green gold’, cactus offers a high nutritional value for people and animals alike. ICARDA is exploring the potential of spineless cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) as green fodder grown in degraded lands in India, in collaboration with IGFRI, Jhansi, the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, Government of India. 

This ICARDA project targeted 4 hectares of spineless cactus cultivation per village per year covering total 5 villages (20 hectares/year) per district. By 2019 the number of districts to be covered under this project was 10, vide their project brochure of 2018-19 in Odisha. However, in the context of Odisha, cactus has never been a preferable or popular fodder crop. Although some regions of the state act like semi-arid areas particularly during summer, what they deserve is not cultivation of cactus but they have enough potential to produce food crops if irrigated.

Key Findings of Spineless Cactus Promotion

Disheartening Failure in Plantations

The attempt to establish spineless cactus plantations across Odisha has met with resounding failure, as evidenced by the widespread disinterest among farmers in its cultivation. Despite initial enthusiasm, farmers have shown a clear lack of interest in continuing with spineless cactus cultivation.

Unpalatable to Livestock

One of the major setbacks encountered in the promotion of spineless cactus is its lack of palatability to livestock. Despite its potential as fodder, livestock have shown reluctance to consume spineless cactus, diminishing its utility as a viable feed option.

Artificial Promotion and Oversight

The promotion of spineless cactus in Odisha raises concerns regarding its necessity and feasibility. ICARDA’s efforts to artificially create demand for spineless cactus under the guise of addressing climate change and increasing fallow lands highlight a disconnect between promotional efforts and ground realities.

Hidden Limitations and Risks

The failure to disclose the limitations and risks associated with spineless cactus cultivation is deeply troubling. Project-holders neglected to inform farmers about the potential drawbacks, including adverse effects on livestock health and the risk of cactus becoming an invasive weed.

Ethical and Transparency Concerns

The lack of transparency surrounding the spineless cactus promotion raises ethical questions about the motives behind the initiative. By prioritizing business mandates over public welfare, ICARDA and the Government of Odisha have perpetuated a fallacy under the guise of agricultural development and climate action.

Charting a Sustainable Path Forward

Prioritize Socio-Economic Analysis

To prevent missteps and optimize resources, it is imperative for developmental agencies, government bodies, and research institutions to conduct comprehensive socio-economic analyses before introducing exotic crops to farmers. Understanding local contexts, farmer preferences, and economic viability is essential for the success of agricultural projects.

Embrace Climate-Resilient Solutions

In light of climate change challenges, a shift towards climate-resilient solutions is crucial. Stakeholder engagement is paramount in discussing and implementing climate-resilient Multi-purpose tree species (MPTs) and fodder crops. By involving all stakeholders, including farmers, in the decision-making process, the selection of appropriate native species can be tailored to local environments and needs.

Foster Sustainable Agricultural Practices

Promoting sustainable agricultural practices not only conserves resources but also enhances agricultural resilience. By prioritizing native species and climate-resilient solutions, public resources can be efficiently allocated to initiatives that align with long-term sustainability goals. Investing in sustainable agriculture ensures the preservation of ecosystems while meeting the needs of present and future generations.

In conclusion, a collaborative approach that integrates socio-economic analyses, stakeholder engagement, and sustainable practices is essential for charting a path towards agricultural resilience and prosperity. By fostering dialogue and prioritizing sustainability, we can harness the full potential of agriculture while safeguarding our natural resources for generations to come.

Ravi S. Behera
Ravi S. Behera
Mr. Ravi Shankar Behera, PGDAEM, National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management (MANAGE), Hyderabad is an independent freelance Consultant and Author based in Bhubaneswar. He is an Honorary Advisor to grassroots Voluntary Organizations on Food Security, Forest and Environment, Natural Resource Management, Climate Change and Social Development issues. Ravi has lived and worked in various states of India and was associated with international donors and NGOs over the last twenty three years including ActionAid, DanChurchAid, Embassy of Sweden/Sida, Aide et Action, Sightsavers, UNICEF, Agragamee, DAPTA and Practical Action. He has a keen interest in indigenous communities and food policy issues.
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