In the 2015 film The Martian, Matt Damon’s character survives the harsh surface of the red planet by growing potatoes in its ruddy soil. But for now, that strategy is more of a silver screen fantasy than a scientific reality says Jonathan Hua, an investor with California-based Scrum Ventures.
The subject of extraterrestrial growing is something of a passion for Hua, who started writing about the topic after methodically surveying the existing research and real-world developments regarding the feasibility of Martian farms — and how we might get there in the first place.
Hua’s experience in the agriculture tech field includes a stint at SVG Thrive, a large ag-tech accelerator program, and while Scrum isn’t working with any space-farming projects right now, he’s keeping a close eye on the category. Hua recently spoke to Aerate about the potential for agriculture on Earth’s celestial neighbor.
Aerate: So, what sparked your interest in farming on Mars?
Hua: Elon Musk and SpaceX. He wants to build a fleet in the next 50 to 100 years and transport thousands of people to Mars every couple of years.
A: When we start farming on Mars, what will we be contending with?
H: Extremely low temperatures, possibly little to no sunlight, volcanic rock, toxic salt levels, radiation. The difference in gravity between Mars and Earth might also affect plant yield and plant growth. Of course, microbes, bacteria and other organisms that can make food unsafe or toxic are always a top-of-mind issue.
If there are settlements on Mars, in the long run it will be easier and cheaper to grow food there rather than shipping it up from Earth?
H: Right now, shipping 16 pounds to the International Space Station costs anywhere between $150,000 to $700,000. I read that a 16-ounce bottle of water would cost about $18,000 to send into space. Scale it up to several months worth of food and that’s $5,000 to $10,000 a meal.
A: There are already some experiments happening with growing food in space, correct?
H: Astronauts are testing food-growth methods on the International Space Station. There are also scientists on Earth recreating the properties of Martian soil to assess the possibility of growing food on the surface of Mars. That would, of course, be ideal — but seems relatively unfeasible given the harshness of the environment. Radiation exposure could destroy the seeds of any plants you would try to grow outdoors. If they survived that, the soil has a very high pH, which would kill most everything. The dirt is mostly volcanic rock and salt, and there’s no nitrogen, there’s no potassium, no essential nutrients. Mars might have water, but it’s probably very salty, and mostly ice, so probably not a sustainable source for any farming operation.
A: Given that, in an ideal world, what would agriculture on Mars look like? How would it be handled, who would be doing it?
H: Governments would likely have to subsidize farmers, the kind now working at large-scale, commercial vertical farms here on Earth. Ideally, you’d have self-contained modules that mimic the atmospheric conditions on Earth. Growing would have to be conducted in a closed-loop environment with a recycled water supply, LED lighting, artificial intelligence and sensors that track growth rates and monitor nutrients. You might have a human — could be on Earth, could be on Mars — monitoring it all. That would be ideal. But it’s a tall task.
A: Sounds like it would be mostly automated?
H: It would have to be. It takes thousands of people to run a large-scale vertical farm on Earth. The cost of that kind of labor would kill the budget of any project trying to get a similar operation built on Mars.
A: Describe the differences between hydroponic and aeroponic systems? Which might work better on Mars?
H: Hydroponic systems involve immersing plant roots in a growth medium of key nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. In an aeroponic system, the roots are exposed to the air and sprayed regularly with a nutrient mist. Both could be effective, but since aeroponic systems are more water-efficient and provide more oxygen availability, they might provide better yields and crop quality.
A: What about the potential to breed plants that can handle growing in vertical farms better, or varieties with more nutrient density that can be turned into faux-meat more efficiently?
H: Absolutely. Improving plant breeding by maximizing desirable traits for environmental resilience has been around for as long as anyone can remember. The traits often include resistance to pests or diseases, or environmental tolerance, or plant yield. If crops can be bred to withstand extreme weather conditions like droughts, you can be sure there’s potential to breed better plants that can withstand even harsher environments.
A: What kinds of crops could we be talking about?
H: Most of the crops grown using hydroponics, aeroponics or in vertical farming are leafy greens, berries and fruits, tomatoes, things along those lines. That’s what we’d have to start with.
The goal is that we’d be able to grow all kinds of crops and foods. We’re still far away from that. It would also depend on the dietary needs of people in the Martian environment.
A: This is speculative, but what do you think about terraforming Mars — engineering the climate and atmosphere to create a more hospitable planet for humans, not just plants?
H: Earth and Mars have very few similarities — vastly different atmospheric pressures, natural resources, and surface temperatures. So I don’t know when the technology will exist to make terraforming another planet even remotely feasible. NASA has explored the idea — there are old press releases on their website where they toy with the idea of releasing CO2 gases trapped on Mars’ surface to thicken the atmosphere and warm the planet or redirecting comets and asteroids to hit Mars, which would import volatiles like minerals and other raw materials to transform the planet’s surface. But with current technology, the concept is still just science fiction.
A: How will greater efficiencies and production in vertical farming come about?
H: As a first step, more power-efficient and cheaper lighting systems and more sophisticated devices that can better control resource management and reduce the need for labor.
Before that, more time and energy needs to be invested in R&D for biology and plant physiology in the framework of vertical farming. We don’t necessarily understand optimal cultivation conditions within a vertical farming setting, or crop breeding techniques for aeroponic or hydroponic systems. We have a strong understanding of root development architecture in a traditional farming environment with soil and normal variable conditions on Earth, but these studies have been necessarily adapted or updated for vertical farming frameworks.
A: Getting down to brass tacks — how are we going to establish a good enough method of recycling water, such that we won’t need to keep flying it to Mars?
H: NASA already has a water recycling program for their astronauts and facilities to electrochemically filter out contaminants and turn it back to clean water. This same technology or something similar could likely be adapted to Mars for a more immediate solution. There are also water sources on Mars — albeit mostly polar ice caps. Accessing and filtering those water sources could also help.
A: Could research into farming on Mars and non-livestock methods of producing protein also help us find solutions for some of the food production and environmental challenges we’re currently facing here on Earth?
H: Farming on Mars is unlikely to change anything about how we produce food on Earth. In fact, it’s likely the opposite — food production needs and systems on Earth will likely inform how we think about food production on other planets instead. Vertical farming and alternative proteins were developed to help address the environmental and resource constraints we’re facing here on Earth. There’s a ton of really interesting innovation happening around prolonging shelf life and other areas that address critical issues like food waste, labor constraints, greenhouse gas emissions and food safety.
A: Hypothetically speaking, what’s the timeline for a project like this? Could we expect to see agriculture on Mars — in whatever form it might take — in our lifetimes?
H: That might be challenging. Fifty years is probably a bit of a moonshot. I’d say closer to 100, maybe even a bit more. When Elon Musk develops a SpaceX starship that’s able to make a trip to Mars and back, that’s when we are going to really, really have to have some kind of solution in place for food and production. You’re not going to go to Mars and stick around for just a few days.
(Quotes were edited for space and clarity without altering meaning.)