Nopal, commonly known in English as prickly pear, is so widespread in Mexico that it has become one of the country's main cultural symbols, yet the plant also offers multiple medicinal and agricultural uses.
The cactus, which can grow in arid and semi-arid soils without the need for much water, has properties that help soothe diabetes symptoms and cleanse the colon, agriculture department official Sergio Martinez told EFE.
This has sparked the interest of several countries, including France, which have carried out studies on the medicinal properties of nopal, he said.
According to Martinez, Mexico produces 900,000 tons of nopal per year, and each Mexican consumes a yearly average of almost 5 kg (11 lbs).
The prickly pear also has high yields, as each plant can generate up to 100 nopal pads.
According to Martinez, in order to promote this plant at an international level, authorities must work with farmers to change their mindset and increase production.
Farmers' mindsets should be changed regarding the whole production and commercialization process, allowing them to adopt digital trading ideas to market the plant, Martinez said.
The official pointed to the example of the Nopal Mexica cooperative, a supplier to Walmart.
The nopal plant also provides important environmental benefits, as studies have shown that it can be used in soil restoration efforts.
Another example of the multiple uses of prickly pears is an initiative launched by the firm Nopalimex, which has generated gas and electricity using nopal biomass.
Miguel Ake, an engineer from Mexico's National Polytechnic Institute, began research in 2017 on how to produce biogas with nopal through anaerobic processes.
At a cultural level, nopal was part of the Aztecs' world view, as it symbolized the heart of Prince Copil, who died in combat.
His heart was thrown in a Tule pond and transformed into a nopal, where he was reunited with his mother Malinalxochitl, sister of the war god Huitzilopochtli.