February 19, 2007 / 2:11 PM / 13 years ago

Cactus-eating moth threatens favorite Mexican food

MEXICO CITY, Feb 16 (Reuters Life!) - A moth with a big appetite that once chomped its way through huge swaths of cacti in Australia has landed in Mexico, where the spiky plant is a favorite food stuff and major agricultural product.

Officials said on Friday a moth trapped close to the beach resort of Cancun this week could be the same species that destroyed some 50 million acres of cacti in Australia, opening the possibility the moth will spread to Mexico’s cactus farming regions.

The Cactoblastis cactorum moth landed on Mexico’s Caribbean island Isla Mujeres last year, sparking a major government pest control operation.

Pest control agents have set up hundreds of traps along the coastline and are searching hotels and private homes for further signs of the moth.

“This is war,” said Enrique Sanchez, head of plant and animal health in Mexico. “If lots of them arrive we will try to destroy the largest number possible with pesticides.”

The edible cactus, or nopal, industry in Mexico is worth about $150 million each year. About 10,000 farmers cultivate the plant.

In markets across the country quick-fingered vendors strip the cactus leaves of their spines and stack them in vivid green piles.

The cooked leaves have a slimy texture and a tart taste and are eaten in tacos or mixed with eggs.

They are a major source of fiber, vitamins and minerals. Many adherents of natural medicine say the plant helps weight loss.

The voracious moth originated in South America but was taken to Australia in 1925 to control the spread of prickly pear cacti, which had spread from a single plant in 1839 to over 50 million acres.

In 10 years the moth had destroyed the entire prickly pear population of Queensland and New South Wales, reopening large tracts of land to agriculture.

The moth does not affect Mexico’s tequila-producing agave plants, which look like cactus but are not part of that family.

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