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Opuntia Forest Initiative

THE OPUNTIA FOREST INITIATIVE IN SARDINIA

The CO2 Devouring Forest which uses No (otherwise) Useful Land, No (practically) Water, is truly Sustainable (it renews and pays for itself), creates Employment, has Proven itself over millenia, is Natural, is fully Scalable and Tastes great.

 

Opuntia (Opuntia ficus Indica) has many local nicknames in the arid and semi-arid regions in which it grows: Pear Cactus, Prickly Pear, Ficho d'India, Fig of India, Burundy Fig, nopales and tunas.

As global warming increases its threat, CO2 accumulates and suffocates, forests and crop lands shrink, a non-industrial, non-energy hogging alternative is shaping up. Opuntia has astonishing properties and uses as we are now discovering and beginning to understand:

  • It captures and retains CO2 like the best of them. It does it without expensive machinery and energy consumption, or unproven cutting-edge technologies. Instead, it directly uses energy from the sun with a technology developed over the last 500 million years. The CO2 (most of it) is naturally fixed in the land under the plants for many, many years.

  • As it grows, it produces food for human consumption, both the fruit and the “leaves” (scientifically called cladodes, they are actually modified branches). Among the best known are Mexican specialties such as the traditional “nopales” and “nopalitos” (from the leaves) and “tunas” as fresh fruit, sweets and preserves. In Italy, the leaves are used in salads, fried, and as side dish.

  • It is used as livestock feed and forage, using the whole plant with the added advantage that it provides plenty of hydration for the animals in arid regions.

  • Its seeds contain a delicate oil, prized in the cosmetics and pharma industries.

  • It is raw material for biofuels.

  • It gives employment to usually unemployed, unskilled people, both directly and indirectly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recently concluded research and trials lasting five years have phenomenally advanced our knowledge of Opuntia, its processes, its cultivars and its uses. Today, Opuntia is grown without spines. So, livestock can be grown nearby and the plants are edible with minimal processing. New methods have extended the useful period before spoiling. All unused parts serve secondary purposes. Propagation and the period to harvest have been standardized.

There is a world-wide network of scientists, researchers and professors -mostly in the arid and semi- arid regions of Morocco, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Argentina and the United States- very committed to support advancement of Opuntia understanding and usefulness. There is a United Nations network specialized in supporting Opuntia-related efforts.

Among the most comprehensive studies, Professor John Cushman and his team at the University of Nevada (USA) carried out one of the longest research trials over a period of five years. They have scientifically established the benefits of Opuntia in arid and semi-arid regions and developed excellent cultivars and technologies to better take advantage of these plant's capacity. Professor Paolo Inglese and his team at the University of Napoli (Italy) developed a huge support network and knowledge database in addition to advancing research and scientific knowledge in the field. Professor Inglese's work has been and is currently applied in developing Opuntia fields in north African and Latin American countries as well as in Sicilia and South Italy.

 

Following the work of Professors Cushman and Inglese, and on the basis of the framework provided by the Yale initiative For Humanity, and more specifically its Pofessor Sara Kuebbing, Research Director at the Yale Applied Science Synthesis Program, CRAF has launched its own initiative to promote, help and contribute the research and development of Opuntia forests, plantations and processing in Sardegna, Italy, where optimal conditions are found for these activities.

In initial research, CRAF has confirmed that large tracts of land in Sardegna fall within the definitions of arid and semi-arid regions. Much of the soil is not good for intensive crop exploitation or traditional forestation. Water is scarce. Rain water is in short supply and it falls only within a short interval. However, because Sardegna is surrounded by the sea, Opuntia has a built-in advantage over most trees and crops. Its trick is that it gets much of its water from the air through a process called condensation. When the air temperature decreases at night to the dew point, water from the air condenses into dew. This happens only at the right combination of air temperature and air humidity. In large parts of Sardegna, the combination air temperature-air humidity is ideal or nearly so. This process, which is now attempted to be replicated by complex technologies, is naturally carried out by Opuntia with a technology developed and proven over the last 500 million years or so. Nor is there a scale problem because wind blows regularly from one direction or the other, and the island is not that big so the air does not lose the moisture it carries from the sea (generally not lower than 30%) before reaching the places with the proper temperatures (around 15-20 grades centigrade).

 

To pursue its mission, CRAF is developing a plan of preparation, local research, education, conscientization and support working with local and regional government and the private sector. The intermediate objectives are showing to the private sector and the public the many social, agricultural, industrial, economic, culinary and ecological benefits of Opuntia forests (indeed Opuntia are cactus trees), developing a medium-size proof-of-concept Opuntia forest, installing an agricultural extension- type institution in partnership with local and regional players, carrying out a constant dialog through a newsletter and periodic conferences and meet-ups, help and support private efforts, continue the dialog with main international research and private players.

Main points: Selection and development of Cultivars by expected use and region – Growth techniques Co-production with farm animals and bees – Financing and Incentives - Commercialization of Output – Research of economic, industrial and potential uses within the regional needs and capacity.

 

In addition to the benefits discussed above, the fruit -pear or fig- has some exciting potential health benefits: The fruit is highly nutritious and provides a variety of vitamins and minerals plus powerful compounds -carotenoids, betalains and other plant pigments- with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Still under research, some studies show a pear diet increased skin carotenoid content, while others show a rise in anti-inflammation markers with reduction in joint and other pain and better range of motion. Other study has shown significant reduction in total cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL cholesterol and maximal heart rate. It also showed significant reductions in malondialdehyde (MDA). It is also used in the treatment of obesity and overweight problems.

 

The Opuntia fruit is a significant, concentrated source of magnesium, vitamin C, copper, fiber and potassium, generally lacking in the Sardinian diet.

 

The Opuntia “leaves” yield an extraordinary gel, highly nutritious and ideal to combine with yogurts and smoothies for a silk-like texture. They also yield a particular “water” that can be used as a nutritious basis for powerful energy drinks. As food, they give a satisfactory “wet crunch” to tacos, salads and side dishes. Not to be overlooked, an excellent after-dinner liquour is distilled from Opuntia.

For cosmetics and pharma applications, the Opuntia fruit and leaves are a great source but the star in this area is the oil obtained from the (plentiful) seeds. Although the Opuntia oils are not much researched, what is known today is that they replace existing oils at seriously advantageous prices.

 

For livestock – sheep, cattle, goats, pigs, chickens- the Opuntia biomass is excellent as food and has the added advantage that it provides a good percentage of the water that the animal needs. Currently, harvesting the fruit is quite labor intensive. Yet this is not a disadvantage in Sardegna and other arid zones where unemployment is high and labor is not expensive. Harvesting the leaves requires much less work than other crops and in many cases, it is consumed without harvesting. All this is based on planting and harvesting spineless cultivars.

 

Our initiative will be organized in programs, including those in research, extension, education, demonstration and production. Each program will have temporal and tematic subprograms. We will start inviting Foundation members and the general public as we develop the programs, after generating focus groups together with the other institutions involved.

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