There's A Much Better Choice Than Potatoes For Our First Space Farm

There's a Much Better Choice than Potatoes for Our First Space Farm

The Martian made space potato farming look, if not quite delicious or easy, then certainly plausible. But if we're really going to live out in space, potatoes should absolutely not be our first farming choice. Even before The Martian, potatoes were a popular choice for researchers who were wondering what we might eat in space — and it's not really hard to see why. NASA released a new summary of some of those advantages, based on the work of space botanist Ray Wheeler. Potatoes are fairly simple to grow, have both protein and carbs, and one other big advantage:

There's something special about potato tubers. Potatoes have "eyes" or buds. If given enough time, the eyes sprout. Sections of potatoes containing at least one "eye" could be replanted so they can sprout and produce new plants. This process was illustrated in The Martian, and actually is used by seed potato growers in field settings on Earth who then take their crops and sell them to production companies.

So, if potatoes have so many advantages, why I am dinging them as a first choice for our first space farmers? It's precisely because they're a staple crop.

Even on our Earth, farming is not a proposition to take lightly: seeds die, equipment breaks, weather is unpredictable, diseases strike. We don't know what our first farms in space might be like, but what we do know is that they will almost definitely be unsuccessful. We'll fail and fail and fail again as all the problems of space and farming both meet on one patch of dirt — until we get good at it and the failures start coming fewer and further between.

The yields off these first farms, though, will likely be both small and hard-won, and that means we're not looking for something to bulk up on — that will be, at least initially, the job of rations. Potatoes make sense as an important early crop, but the fact is that our first space crops are going to be more condiment than staple. In fact, when I talked to Wheeler about designing a speculative Martian farm late last year, the crops he recommended as the first were not potatoes but strawberries or tomatoes — fruit that is colourful, flavourful and more a treat than a full diet. For our very first space crop, at least, it certainly makes sense.


Comments

    Why would anyone think they would "fail and fail again"? They'd be growing in a completely controlled environment, able to to do things Earth-bound farmers could only dream about, like tamper with the CO2 content of the atmosphere. They will know the soil content - they will probably need to bring a lot of it with them - and they will have plenty of organic waste to use as fertiliser.

    The thing is that they will not put all their eggs in one basket like Mark Watney was forced to, they will undoubtedly grow a variety of things.

    I'm sure they wouldn't have been Watney's first choice either... if he had a choice.

    He didn't have potatoes so that he could plant a crop. He had them so that he could eat them with the turkey for thanksgiving. And then he scienced the shit out of it.

    And yes. I know it's a story. :)

      I have nothing to eat... I gonna die... Potatoes!!! Oh, no, somebody said it's not gonna work ... Well, I guess I have to die.

    Excerpt from the novel, "The Martian",
    ...By setting the Hab temperature to a balmy 25.5 degrees, I can make the plants grow faster. Also, the internal lights will provide plenty of "sunlight", and I'll make sure they get lots of water. There will be no foul weather, or parasites to hassle them, or any weeds to compete with for soil or nutrients..."

    Like the others above, yes its a story, but I think its indicative of how we consume media ie. watch the movie but skip the novel, today, where perhaps the details of the novel provide a bit more rationale and "science" behind the method in which Watney grows the 'taters'.

    What diseases should we expect to find on a planet where there is no life, not even bacteria?

    This article is bizarre. I doubt the writer has even done anything with farming or even a vege garden. Growing food is ridiculously easy, doing it with minimal input and foot print is the only hard part.

    Secondly, it would be tested. We can stimulate the slave craft and hab environment and have huge data about the soil.

    The most likely food to grow will of course be fruit and nuts. it's extremely doubtful they would bother with vegetables as water and nutrients are not the problem: you want carbs protien and fat.

      I dunno about fruit, do you know how long it takes after you plant an apple or orange tree before it starts to bear fruit? Years, decades even.

      Potatoes only need a couple of B vitamins and they are nutritionally complete. They contain almost everything we need to survive. They are an extraordinary food for us to live on, and would be an excellent choice to grow in space.

    Aww I was hoping you'd say kale. Everyone loves kale.

    Potatoes are pretty easy to grow, probably why Andy Weir chose them. Not to mention the added advantage that plants grow directly and rapidly from the crop. Which shortens the sow-reap cycle considerably versus seed-only plants. And they don't need pollination to produce more potatoes.

    The main downside of potatoes grown in this fashion is that they would all be clones. So if a crew or resupply brought blight or other plant disease to the colony, it would be all or none survival of the plants.

    The article's suggestion of tomatoes and strawberries is nice in theory but not that practical. Firstly, both are very water hungry. And both are finicky to get good yields. Tomatoes in particular require an alkaline growing medium and plenty of fertiliser. Hydroponics would help here, at the expense of extra resource and equipment.

    In reality, it would have to be a variety of crops as almost no plants provide 100% of essential amino acids and essential fatty acids.

    Wouldn't time from seed to harvest be a major factor? Tomatoes need 2-3 months atleast. Radishes and some species of brassica (like bok choy) can be grown from seed to harvest in under a month. And that's in regular conditions. With hydroponics it could be 2-3 weeks. They're both as easy to grow as tomatoes, and would provide more nutrition.

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