In the movie The Martian (directed by Ridley Scott and released in 2015), Matt Damon is an astronauts who is accidentally left alone on Mars and, while waiting to be rescued, survives by growing potatoes. Obviously, it is not based on real events, because we still have a long way to go before a manned mission reaches the red planet. However, the plot comes from a novel of the same name by Andy Weir and is perfectly plausible because space farming has long since become one of the branches of planetary exploration. One of the people who knows it best has been in Spain these days, as a speaker at the III Inversolar Congress 2022, an event on solar greenhouses organized in Almería by Cute Solar, a program with European funding.
Gary Stutte, a specialist in horticulture, space biology and plant physiology, worked for 20 years at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where he led several spaceflight experiments designed to grow plants in microgravity. He currently runs his own company, SyNRGE, a spin-off of the US space agency that is dedicated, precisely, to the development of space agriculture, although he declares that in reality his goal is much more mundane: feeding people in the Land.
In an interview with Teknautas, Stutte explains all these questions: why learning to grow crops in outer space is also important to feed those of us who will never leave the planet, why the greenhouses in Almería seem so interesting to him or when he thinks that the human being will arrive on Mars and will begin to plant authentic extraterrestrial potatoes. Of course, you had to start by asking about The Martian. “I really enjoyed the movie. Most of the details were wrong, but the main idea was right,” he says. In other words, to survive on Mars for a long time it will be essential to recycle any waste that can help grow food. Although we may think that other planets or our Moon are too inhospitable places for plant organisms that enjoy terrestrial conditions to grow, in reality there are common elements that can serve as a base.
“Mars has light from the sun and has gravity, a third of that on Earth,” the expert points out. So the key is to provide the necessary nutrients, oxygen, carbon and, of course, to accurately manage elements as scarce as water. “We need structures, find ways to transform resources and produce in interior spaces,” he points out. The challenge of growing crops on Mars involves “being able to create a closed system, in which all kinds of waste are used sustainably and in the long term,” he explains. This involves recycling water and recovering nutrients.
“From my point of view, plants will make it possible for humans to survive on Mars,” he says, but not just because of the obvious. In outer space, several elements that we enjoy on our planet will be essential: breathable air, drinking water and food; in addition to an extra ration of water for hygiene reasons. Well, the answer to all these needs is in plants to a greater or lesser extent, since they provide oxygen and take advantage of waste and non-potable water to produce food.
In fact, all this has been rehearsed since the 1990s. On the International Space Station (ISS), experiments with plants date back 25 years and many of them bear Stutte’s signature. On the ISS it has been possible to recycle water, CO₂ and grow everything from lettuce to sunflowers. In other experiments on Earth but which imitate outdoor conditions (controlled environment and recycled resources), extraordinary milestones have even been achieved: “The potato yields were twice the world record,” said the expert.
For the moment, all this has been achieved without resorting to genetically modifying plants or CRISPR gene editing technology, but the expert does not rule out that these ways can also contribute a lot in the future. Now, your company has two main objectives. One is to keep doing all sorts of new and risky experiments that could bring solutions to both space and terrestrial farming. The other is to work with other companies and institutions to develop the high technology needed for the food sector in the form of new types of greenhouses or other structures.
What Almeria can contribute
The curious thing is that a prominent NASA scientist has visited the greenhouses of southeastern Spain, accompanied by colleagues from the University of Almeria, with the aim of learning. Not only is he impressed by the largest concentration of greenhouses in the world, around El Ejido, and because they are providing food to all of Europe, but he considers the optimization of resources that they are achieving, based on new sensor technologies and in automated control systems.
As he highlighted in his conference, the challenge of surviving on Mars involves finding solutions that, in a certain way, are quite similar to those being implemented here. From this point of view, can Almeria contribute to space exploration? “I believe so and I hope so,” he says. “Almeria has transformed an area that was not suitable for traditional agriculture and has created a new economy,” he says, just what is needed in space. However, the specific infrastructures that will be developed on Mars will bear little resemblance to the “sea of plastic” in western Almeria, simply because the lack of atmosphere changes everything and it will be necessary to adapt to the conditions and use other technologies.
For example, one of the lines of research in this field is based on “changing the biochemistry of plants through light”, he highlighted in his presentation. Playing with the different alternatives offered by LED lights, scientists have already managed to increase the concentration of nutrients or modify the antioxidant compounds of crops. In addition, it must be considered that it is possible that human beings located on other planets have slightly different needs. “In space we’re going to be bombarded with radiation,” Stutte said. In this sense, the cultivation of fresh fruits and vegetables may be key, according to some studies, to maintaining good health and protecting future astronauts against a strange and hostile environment for humans. New ways of growing food for new profits may open up.
In any case, “we will go to Mars and this will be a turning point in our evolution as a species,” he said at the Almería conference. One of the big questions is when. According to the former NASA researcher, the time to set foot on Mars is very close. In his opinion, the first astronaut to make it has already been born. “I think that in 30 years we will be on Mars and that there will be plants, but I don’t know what they will be like,” he says. In this sense, he considers that plant organisms will be an inseparable companion of our new cosmic adventures. “China’s space agency has recently managed to grow seeds on the far side of the Moon. It is a first step to show that this is possible and, from there, what we are going to do is improve the process,” it states.
Why will it apply on Earth?
However, he is convinced that any advance will have application on Earth. “Climate change is making summers and winters increasingly harsh and rainfall changes. What does this mean? That agricultural production is going to change and that we are going to try to control plant growth at any part of the world. The greenhouses on the Spanish coast are going to be exported to Europe,” he says. The agricultural products of the future may come from distant fields, but also from “central London”, he predicts. In fact, agriculture as we know it today on Earth is not sustainable either.
“We use 50% more of our body weight to fertilize the food we need for a year and this fertilizer ends up going out of the system, we have to recover it,” he commented in his speech. In addition, apart from the changes that have to do with the climate, humanity will face the challenge of having fewer and fewer resources to feed some 3,000 million more people in the coming decades. Creating the conditions to feed them, through technology and innovation, is essential, he explains. That is why it is committed to proving that the new methods are useful in space and deploying them on our planet as well.