Space Farming is Science FICTION

posted in: Science | 6
 The future of agriculture? Photo: NASA
The future of agriculture? Photo: NASA

It said on the screen, “Bioregenerating Soil-Based Space Agriculture.” The title of the talk was “Beyond Intensification.” The speaker, a prominent researcher and prolific author, is someone who I thought would present clear thinking on how, in addition to intensification of current agriculture, we can go about producing enough food for the earth’s growing population. I glanced around to see if anyone else was astonished. Space farming, he said, was the next step after agricultural intensification with food coming from the Moon and Mars. “Has it come to that?” I thought.

I am a fan of science fiction. Not a costumed, Trekkie-conference fan, but a fan. However, over the years, I have realized that the stories I enjoy most are mostly fiction; the science is often ignored. This is “soft” science fiction, the stuff of most Sci-Fi movies because there is a way to visit distant planets; think warp drives on the Enterprise, a hyperdrive in the Millennium Falcon, and wormholes in Interstellar.

Hard Sci-Fi, on the other hand, aims for a measure of scientific accuracy, for example, space in the movie Gravity; hostile, unforgiving, a deceptive beauty. Although Gravity portrayed space, similar conditions are found on the Moon and Mars, conditions not at all conducive to farming; mutation-causing radiation, life-sucking vacuum, sizzling heat and the icy-dark cold; soils that are truly dead, deficient in essential nutrients and liquid water. To produce crops in such conditions requires a completely artificial environment. All the recycling, watering, breathing, pollinating, nutrient cycling and moderating of temperatures provided for free here on earth, would have to be created artificially, and then constantly monitored and managed and maintained.   NASA estimates that anyone sent to Mars would spend 60% of their time doing just this; those enthusiastically signing up for the one-way trip would be farmers first, then scientists, engineers, astronomers, etc. They will not have the choice of letting others produce their food (a luxury achieved through modern agriculture), and will live with the constant danger of catastrophic failure. This challenge is described well in the “hard” sci-fi book The Martian, by Andy Weir (recommended, movie coming out this year). Failure to keep a closed system means that all the air gets sucked out and your crops die. At least there would be no pests.

While a huge challenge, providing food for a crew of people from crops grown on the Moon or Mars is at least plausible; not so for growing food for consumption on Earth. It would be easier to farm the arctic or the deserts here on earth. In addition to the challenges of growing the crops, there is the whole issue of transporting the food back to earth at a reasonable cost. Why fret about fresh California strawberries flown to New York if we are going to import food from the Moon? Yet, despite these obvious flaws, many people, as shown by the interest and writing about farming space, still think this is a reasonable alternative. Why?

Rover tracks on Mars (future tractor tracks?). Photo: JPL NASA
Rover tracks on Mars (future tractor tracks?). Photo: JPL NASA

Some, too impressed by our technological prowess, forget that soft science fiction is not real. “Bioregenerating Soil-based Space Agriculture” sounds suspiciously like terra-forming to me, an often used process in soft science fiction, but not anything we could currently achieve. But why not in the future, hundreds of years from now? Disregarding the fact that the speaker said that space farming would begin adding to earth’s food supply starting in 2025, the conditions away from earth will remain, for us and crops accustomed to life on earth, just as they are today; hostile and unforgiving. Cheap, convenient space travel is a beguiling fantasy.

Others have lost hope that we can overcome the challenge of producing enough food here on Earth. Like the people in the movie Interstellar, faced with a deteriorating environment (unexplained), they think we will be forced to look to space for our survival; not “putting all our eggs in one basket.” However, because of the obvious limits, if we cannot figure out how to feed ourselves on earth, we will have nowhere to go, at least to grow food.

The earth is unique. Of all the planets we can realistically visit, it alone supports life. Here, life proliferates, from bacteria to worms, rabbits to elephants. We don’t have to work hard to make this happen, it just does. Agriculture works well here too, especially when compared to the moon or Mars. Rather than falling for Hollywood special effects, or giving up hope, we should remain steadfast in our commitment to improve earth-agriculture. Space is filled with wonders and we should continue our exploration, and enjoy sci-fi movies and books, but recognize that for nearly all of us, including the future populations, spaceship earth is the only spaceship we will ride. We only have one basket. In thinking about the future of agriculture, we must remain down-to-earth; there is no other option.

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Andrew McGuire is an Irrigated Cropping Systems Agronomist for Washington State University Extension. He works with farmers in the Columbia Basin of Central Washington in improving soils through cover crops and high residue farming systems.