Packing for Mars? Bring your gardening gloves.

pod to table (reposted from

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.


Indigenous Ecosystem Management


Rice terraces in the Sayan valley, Bali. Photo by JB Hardy.

In 2013, I attended a talk by Julia Watson of Studio REDE on indigenous landscapes and traditional ecological knowledge, and it has percolated in the back of my mind ever since. The talk was fascinating, and raised a lot of questions that I don’t see often explored in the sustainability discourse. The mainstream environmental movement generally treats humans as a self-loathing, predator-parasite on the Earth, sucking resources beyond our capacity to renew, woefully out of tune with the ecosystem around us. If humankind disappeared, the thinking goes, the Earth would rebalance itself. This perception has always left me cold. What problem would extracting us from the equation solve? Apart from the vulnerable poster-animals like polar bears and snow leopards, the species most widely affected by climate change is humans. A changing climate threatens our place-based way of life; it washes away lands, bringing the ocean into beachfront communities; it tosses the sky down on towns where tornadoes had never landed before; it evaporates riverbeds, growing land out of the water that nourishes desert cities. Humans can’t be extracted from the equation; we are the denominator the equation is built around. That humans are a threat to their environment is only a very new historical fact.

Indigenous cultures intuit this in a way that contemporary environmentalists do not. Watson discussed the shaman as ecosystem manager, regulating human behavior vis-à-vis environmental feedbacks, through taboo. Regional taboos and ceremonies are manifestations of a reverence for the sacred, and intuitively establish our place within the larger ecosystem by setting limits on resource use, protecting their boundaries as beyond our reach (off-limits). Contemporary environmentalists, perhaps in an attempt to polarize themselves from climate deniers on the right, have placed their faith solely in science, effectively marginalizing traditional ‘ways of knowing’ as superstitious, if not invalid. Meanwhile, the hyperlocal indigenous knowledge-practice-belief archetype of ‘traditional ecological knowledge’ that evolved over generations within specific microclimates is logically more suited to preserve humans’ role within an ecosystem, since that is the function it was developed to serve. It is now a question of whether it can be scaled up to meet global demand in comparable biomes where such practice has been lost. Stripping the traditional shaman of power in essence privatizes the ownership of generational collective knowledge, forcing the environmental movement to act within the corporate paradigm it pays lip service to overturning. Instead, environmentalists would be better served by re-establishing humans as complicated players within the climate drama, both predators and protectors.

One of Watson’s projects created design concepts for Bali’s World Heritage Cultural Landscape, the cooperative subak  system of rice terraces and water temples. Subak have been in use for over a thousand years, integrating watershed ecosystem management, religion, and culture into a closed-loop, functional, sustainable food system.  I have been to Bali many times; one thing that makes it a magical place is not simply its natural landscape, but the very fact that it has been shaped—used, managed—by humans for millennia. Ecosystems do not exist without the organisms that inhabit them, and humans are one of those organisms. Even in the seemingly pristine forest one might stumble upon a decaying temple or long-forgotten irrigation system. In this case, “pristine” doesn’t mean untouched by humans; it means stewarded by humans to preserve both its function in perpetuity, and our place within it.