What farming on Mars could teach us about farming on Earth
Citizen scientists are learning to grow food for taste and nutrition, rather than profit.
Scientists, entrepreneurs and bio-hackers are all trying to figure out how to grow food on Mars. Even Matt Damon's doing it. Growing food on another planet sounds like a fun exercise that won't really affect the world too much for a while. But Karin Kloosterman, who co-founded Israeli urban farming company Flux, thinks that this exercise isn't really about Mars. It's about Earth.
By imagining they're planning for Mars, researchers are thinking in new ways about farming closer to home. After all, farming on Mars is like farming in a vacuum. It's a puzzle that forces scientists to figure out the best way to farm with limited resources.
"When you break out of a circular way of thinking, you can point your arrow in a different trajectory," Kloosterman told From the Grapevine. "It’s the Earth’s farmers that’ll be the data collectors. So when we start that mission to Mars, we’ll already have the know-how."
There's actually a lot we don't know about growing food on our own planet.
"There's an incredible amount of data that’s being lost," said the Israel-based Kloosterman, who is part of a group of citizens around the world researching how to farm on the red planet. "Soil can be very different even a meter away ... If you want to grow a strawberry in Chicago, it’s different than in Bangkok."
According to Kloosterman, modern agriculture focuses on how to make food profitable, rather than healthy and tasty. "The conventional agriculture system is not about farmers, it’s about banks. It’s about chemical companies. Those are the entities that control what we eat today," she said. "The farmers just throw chemical nutrients onto the soil and pesticides to kill everything else."
Instead of figuring out how to grow inexpensive food that looks nice on store shelves, Kloosterman wants to find out how to make food that, you know, tastes good. "How do you grow those strawberries so they’re gonna be tasty and really delicious?" she asked.
She's not the only one. Lots of regular people are learning to grow peppers, tomatoes and all kinds of plants at such a high level of quality, you couldn't find them in the local grocer if you tried. "There are citizen scientists all throughout the United States," she said. "They’re the real pioneers of urban farming today."
The citizen scientist movement has become a worldwide phenomenon over the last few decades. "Tel Aviv has now become a real world center for urban farming," Kloosterman said. If these individuals could share their knowledge with each other, then everyone could reap the benefits.
"If we can employ this global hive of people who want to do it, who are doing it … then my job is done," she continued.
As the years go on, farming might look very different than big patches of farmland growing a single crop. Urban farms could become more important, even on balconies or mall rooftops. A lot of citizen scientists use hydroponics, for instance, which means growing plants in water instead of soil.
"Hydroponics has done an incredible thing for spreading food diversity, especially in cities," Kloosterman explained.
This "updated" version of farming offers a lot of possibility. "If you get the chemistry right … the plants can basically grow on autopilot. You don’t need to weed. It’s extremely water efficient. You don’t have to use pesticides," Kloosterman told us. "You can push the plants to do things they wouldn’t normally do in nature," like adding nutrients to create certain vitamins. "You can compare it to 3D printing for food."
Learning to farm in a very different environment than we're used to is going to take new knowledge. And picturing these farms in Mars is a wonderful trick for coming up with new ways to farm here on Earth.
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