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Farming on Mars – where would we even start?

Space agriculture emphasises the creation of whole ecosystems above the creation of pertinent and precise agricultural techniques, writes Dr Naudé Malan

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Humanity is moving to space. SpaceX has loudly and clearly expressed its intentions to colonise Mars, and this immediately begs the question: What are we going to eat on Mars and in space? Dr Naudé Malan, senior lecturer in development studies at the University of Johannesburg considers the implications.


Thinking of food and agriculture in space might be the ultimate distraction from our own ecological impact, and it shines a bright light on our current ways of farming and eating.

Mars is far away, and no matter how many seeds are sent and what food preservation technologies there are, colonists eventually would have to grow their own food.

Early and interesting discoveries and some real good science can be expected from those who settle permanently off-world, but there is almost nothing on Mars that could be profitably traded with Earth. Society on Mars will be self-serving, and a great part of this would concern growing food. Food will be central to survival and security in space for any length of time. It might spur a culture centred around a cosmic food self-reliance.

Off-world agriculture will certainly start with hydroponic and closed loop aquaponics systems. Microbial protein, produced with yeasts and hydrogen and carbon dioxide gas will certainly be part of the diet. Soylent (in powder form of course) will be exported in vast quantities to colonists, perhaps as a conveniently storable last resort against starvation. Yuck!

A love hate affair with nature

Insects and fish will be on the menu, but I would be surprised if chickens or even rodents make it across due to their relatively high feed conversion ratios. We will eventually see soil-based agriculture being exported to space, and crops will be grown in cosmic dust, so to speak.

Food is a love hate affair with nature. Food binds us to the earth and holds us by our hunger. Space food and agriculture – think of Major Tom’s protein pills – will not liberate us from nature and our own appetites. It will bring our own ecological reality to the fore and force us to confront how our own existence, food and eating, and our own death, are part of the ecosystem we live in. We will have to create and take with us, a complete ecosystem if we want to eat well in space.

In space we would have to conserve every microgram of biological material. This is the raw material to build soils and food production systems. There will be a lot of this. This will be the most important resource in a permanent colony and is the stuff of the ecosystem we would have to create to survive off-world.

How are we going to build soils in space? Soils are extremely complex and their make-up still defies scientific enumeration. Soils are the accumulation of almost every little piece of biological matter that has ever been created.

‘That which is alive today needs to feed future generations.’

The creation of soil in space brings our waste stream into relief, which would need to be recycled. This would be particularly important on Mars, as its soils include toxic perchlorates but also necessary minerals. True sustainable agriculture will first of all be achieved in space, as it will be based-on the conservation of all manure, the most precious space commodity.

Space is bathed in radiation. Genetics will immediately be affected, particularly crops grown over multiple generations. Mars does not have a magnetic field, and receives more radiation than Earth and this will affect crops and animals over successive generations. Hydroponic systems with hybrids suitable to indoor growing systems may not have the genetic diversity or resilience to withstand multiple generations of inbreeding and space radiation.

Space agriculture would have to start with wild varieties, landraces and heirlooms before we pack the hybrids. Open-pollinated landraces and heirlooms have wide genetic profiles and will be resilient to the harsh radiation and confined growing spaces. This will certainly be supplemented with strains developed on Earth, but we would need to put our genetic resources in many boxes in space to increase the resilience of the space food production system.

Are we taking bees to space?

Crops in space also would need to evolve and cross-fertilise. Space agriculture can only be based on a broad genetic foundation. This begs the question on pollination, and here a creative solution would have to be found. Are we taking bees to space?

Plants and animals would need to evolve in space. On earth we subvert evolution by breeding. However, breeding narrows genetic profiles whilst we would need the opposite to ensure we can eventually find the most appropriate genes that will thrive in this new environment. We would need plants in particular to fertilise themselves, and await the serendipity of chance combinations. These chance mutations are key in developing new strains and plants in space.

What kind of “ecosystem” will emerge amongst people in space? Can we safely process waste and bacteria into soils? It would pay to consider the kind of “functioning” and “health” of this system, and how this runs alongside human existence. Here ecological design will be important, and will reflect not high-tech breeding and indoor systems, but rather small-scale permaculture and regenerative design principles.

Plants and animals are also a big part of our psychological and cultural well-being, and it may be that colonists in space will prefer agriculture above industrialisation or scientific research. We may be able to eat well in space, but we still need to see if we can survive the cultural isolation that will accompany long-term off-earth existence. To survive in space, we would need to recreate the whole of human existence off-world.

Space agriculture emphasises the creation of whole ecosystems above the creation of pertinent and precise agricultural techniques. Living in space will be the ultimate affirmation of the inescapable ecological and organic nature of our existence. That which is alive today is needed to feed future generations. We will only see this once we leave the earth.

Naudé Malan
Naudé Malan
Dr. Naudé Malan is a senior lecturer in Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg. In 2013, Malan launched a technology development initiative where technology was designed alongside urban farmers in Soweto called Izindaba Zokudla Farmers Lab.
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