Researchers at a university in the state of México are urging the federal government to grant designation of origin (PDO) status to the nopal cactus in the face of a threat from China to patent production of the plant.
The academics fear that if China is successful in patenting the nopal, also known as prickly pear, they could increase production and flood markets with the plant’s edible paddles.
At an agricultural forum held at the Chapingo Autonomous University (UACh) in Texcoco, they argued that by guaranteeing PDO protection to the nopal — a national symbol that appears on the Mexican flag — a nascent Chinese ambition to dominate production would be stopped or at least slowed down.
The paddles are well known for their nutritional benefits, are used in a variety of typical Mexican dishes and have been eaten here for thousands of years. The plant’s fruit, known as tuna, is also eaten, its juice is acclaimed for its medicinal properties and it can even be used as an energy source.
International demand for its high-fiber paddles has increased in recent times.
While China currently has about 3,000 hectares dedicated to nopal production and cannot compete with Mexico’s massive output, UACh academic Pedro Ponce Javana said it was still urgent that Mexico acted to certify the native plant as uniquely Mexican.
If granted the designation, it would join 14 Mexican products that already enjoy PDO protection.
However, China’s patent plan is not the only threat to Mexico’s diverse range of cactus species.
Celebrating National Cactus Day on Tuesday, UACh academics and producers also said that all of Mexico’s cacti need to be better protected and/or commercially exploited because producers from Asian countries are illegally extracting various types from the country.
More than 7,000 species have been taken by Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai producers over the past few decades, they said, including 500 tonnes of cacti that were sent to Japan from Colima in 1982 in what was described as a looting of “historical” proportions.
A worldwide cactus boom is currently taking place and cacti of the sempervivum genus (known as houseleeks or live forever cacti) are in particularly high demand. Smugglers invariably collude with Mexican traffickers who help them to locate, extract and transport the plants or in some cases, seeds.
Ponce Javana said that 50% of Mexico’s national territory is made up of arid and semi-arid regions that boast different types of vegetation that had been studied for botanical purposes but not for commercial exploitation.
He said it was urgent to “promote research with a view to production to stop theft and looting of the wealth . . . .”
Laws that decree certain areas as nature reserves are not enough to guarantee their protection, Ponce said, because in many cases local residents collude with foreign cactus thieves or give their consent for their extraction.