Packing for Mars? Bring your gardening gloves.

pod to table (reposted from giantfreakinrobot.com)

As New York City continues to explore vertical farming and applications allowing everyone to gps and crowdsource their compost needs, we are left to wonder if this is really the future of farming. As cities expand, will we be picking apples on our walk to the elevator and will all our produce be grown under simulated sunlight? Plants grow in deserts and under enormous pressure at the depths of the ocean floor, without a flicker of the suns’ rays – yet still manage to unleash a necessary energy source in creatures. As we consider the limitations of our Earth, and book our one way ticket to Mars, should we be packing our shovels and seeds? Is Monsanto already there? Does the future hold the romantic possibility of paying a premium for ‘farm to table’ or will we till right through the fourth agricultural revolution, leaving behind the plot of land for a test tube?

Last fall, in a study led by G.W. Wieger Wamelink, biologists created simulated lunar and martian soils extrapolated from mineral compositions [rocks] collected in outer space. Sand-like soils, called regoliths, comprised both samples, containing all the essential nutrients with the exception of reactive nitrogen, a necessary ingredient for almost all plant growth. On our planet, reactive nitrogen comes from organic matter, including humans, and occasionally from lightning or volcanic activity. While a lack of reactive nitrogen can be solved through nitrogen fixing species [soybean, clover crop] other major issues with the extraterrestrial soil remained, including the existence of metals, such as aluminum, which disturbs plant growth, and a lack of liquid water. Although liquid water is not present on the Moon, it may be available in small quantities on Mars. This study relies on the concept that plant growth can occur using the ice found at both locations.

If you too are picturing a small prairie cottage on the red planet, borrowing some eggs from Richard Branson, and a quaint garden framed by the setting Earth, it is important to remember that on the warmest days at the equator, Mars is about seventy degrees Fahrenheit. This can quickly drop to negative one hundred at night. While scientists were able to successfully grow tomatoes, reflexed stone crop, wheat, cress and green manure species seed mustard in simulated settings – the future of farming might taste very different.

 

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About jlbollinger

JL Bollinger consults on projects covering urban resiliency, smallholder agricultural and global health. She received her BA from Tufts University in International Relations and Spanish, with a concentration on Europe and the former Soviet Union, and her MS in Sustainability Management from Columbia University.

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