California Has No Water, So It Might Be Time To Start Farming Cactus

Livestock can eat the drought-tolerant cactus, and we can eat the livestock, and everyone can be happy.

As California lurches through a fourth year of drought, it’s still the country’s top producer of thirsty crops like almonds, tomatoes, and nectarines. One designer thinks it might be time to try focusing on something else: Cactus.


In a conceptual project called Grassroots Cactivism, winner of Archinect’s Dry Futures contest, Ali Chen envisions a model for a massive cactus farm that would help produce livestock feed. Because cacti also happen to work as natural water filters, Chen paired the farm with a water treatment plant.

“It was quite an amazing coincidence to find that cactus is not only drought tolerant and edible, but that it has the ability to clean water,” she says. “It was only logical and efficient to combine these two functions into one facility to minimize transportation costs and fuel.”

Since a surprisingly large amount of water on California farms goes to crops like alfalfa that are used for livestock feed (this is a large part of the reason why a single burger uses 660 gallons of water), Chen wanted to find a replacement. Cactus, it turns out, can serve as a healthy substitute for at least part of a cow’s meal, and the plant is already in use in some other drought-prone regions, like Texas.

In the design, the cactus grows in circular patches, with irrigation in the middle. It’s the kind of pattern you might see on desert farms. “When designing the form of the project it was important for me to make use of existing generic typologies of farm and agricultural production, as I wanted to emphasize the idea behind the project, and not the form or aesthetic of it,” says Chen.

Chen envisions that the farm could also double as a spa that people would want to visit. “Cacti and succulents are an amazing family of plants in that they represent natural adaptation at its most extreme,” she says. “Not only do we have a lot to learn from them but they are also formally very interesting and beautiful…they are low maintenance and have sculptural qualities that appeal to and can even inform modern design.”

She sees the design as an example of the type of systems thinking needed to survive an increasingly dry future. “I think buildings have a responsibility not to act as separate entities but together as a network,” she says. “As designers, our aim is to find the happy medium where all parties are happy. In short, a helpful route would come from designing a way to make saving water profitable.”


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.