With bugs, algae, and other resource-efficient foods we could feed one million people on Mars within a century of arriving there. Scientists even invented a martian diet.
In the science fiction novel and film The Martian, a stranded astronaut survives for more than 500 days on Mars by growing potatoes. A permanent human settlement on Mars would have to perform significantly better. And, according to a computer model developed by planetary scientists, that is an attainable goal. A paper in the journal New Space reports that with the right food sources, we could grow a million-person population on Mars that does not rely on food shipped from Earth in about a hundred years.
Companies like SpaceX have taken exciting steps toward the possibility of humans landing on Mars, according to Kevin Cannon, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida and the study’s lead author. But, aside from the challenge of getting humans to Mars in the first place, there is still a lot of work to be done to figure out how to build a self-sustaining, functioning society there.
“I think, looking in the long term, the real challenge is to start producing everything you need from the local materials on Mars,” Cannon says.
Farming on Mars
Cannon and colleagues simulated the food requirements of a human population on Mars that grows to one million over the course of about a hundred Earth years due to a combination of immigration and reproduction. Though the settlement would need to import a lot of food at first, they discovered that with the right food choices, it could transition to an entirely Martian-grown diet in about a century.
The primary limitation is space — or, more specifically, the ability to create spaces suitable for growing food. On Earth, the amount of arable land available limits our ability to grow food, whether plants, animals, or something else. We’d have to build these enclosed, pressurized, and heated structures on Mars. For the sake of efficiency, a Martian society would need to select food sources that are high in nutrients and calories in relation to the space required to grow.
Cannon believes that traditionally farmed animal products and certain plants require a lot of resources and may be impractical on Mars. However, this does not necessarily require a reduction in the variety of Martian diets. His team’s models include three types of food sources: plant-based foods, edible insects, and “cellular agriculture,” which includes protein-rich foods like algae and lab-grown meats, dairy, and eggs that we can grow from cells.
Cannon has created a website that compiles a list of businesses that are currently working to create food in these ways, often with the goal of more resource-efficient and sustainable food production on Earth in mind.
This includes eating plants such as beans, tomatoes, and potatoes, as well as GMO products that have been genetically modified to include more nutrients and grow more sustainably. A number of companies now produce insect-based products, such as whole crickets or powdered insects for use as flour, that aspiring Martians can try.
“The limitations that Mars would put on you in producing food kind of forces you into practices that turn out to be more sustainable on the Earth,” Cannon says.