Out of This World

Case study explores farming on Mars

Published in the January 2015 Issue Published online: Jan 06, 2016 Bill Loftus, University of Idaho
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If University of Idaho food scientist Helen Joyner were part of a mining mission to Mars and knew she’d be growing and eating three crops the entire mission, she’d grow potatoes, soybeans and corn. 

Deciding which crops to take to Mars is the essence of a case study Joyner and colleague Michael Allen, a Washington State University astrobiologist, prepared for science teachers. Joyner is a teacher and researcher in UI’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. She is based out of the School of Food Science, which is operated jointly by UI and WSU. 

The case study, titled “Farming in Space? Developing a Sustainable Food Supply on Mars,” presents 12 grains and vegetables and adds fish as potential foodstuffs suitable for production on the red planet. The critical thinking exercise premiered in October, coinciding with the release of the hit film The Martian.

The scenario is simple: a mining party of 100 sets out for Mars with enough resources to bring 1,000 acres into cultivation. For the sake of simplicity (and as an academic exercise), the party is limited to three crop choices. Those 13 choices include corn, rice, oats, barley, potatoes, wheat, peas, soybeans, peanuts, spinach, broccoli, winter squash and fish. Each item’s essential qualities are outlined.

Peas, for example, require low levels of fertilizer, water, space, time and effort to grow and process. They require only medium effort for post-harvest processing and generate medium yields and waste.

Peas produce high levels of calories, carbohydrate content and micronutrients and have a high shelf life after processing. They are, however, low in protein and fat content and require a low level of additional structure needed for growth, processing and storage.

Fish are nearly opposite in all categories, but the tradeoffs include high calorie, protein and micronutrient content and medium fat content. The downside of fish compared to peas is fish need a lot of water, require substantial facilities and have a short shelf life.

Still, Joyner noted the exercise requires students to think about eating three food items for the rest of their lives. And then there are the nutritional aspects. 

“If you asked five food scientists, you’d probably get five different answers,” she said.

The case study requires students to grapple with those issues and more. It was published Oct. 2 by the National Science Foundation-funded National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science at the University of Buffalo.

Her choices, Joyner said, were made because potatoes, soybeans and corn can be combined into many combinations for meals, and, when combined, soy and corn produce the complete protein combination people need to survive.

Peanuts could be a feasible alternative to soy and have better qualities in some cases, Joyner said, but she dropped them from her list for one simple reason: “I have a peanut allergy.”

The project began with a National Academy of Sciences scientific teaching workshop in 2014. Mars farming seemed a natural topic, and one that highlights the importance of critical thinking and problem-solving skills. 

“These are skills I focus on when I teach food engineering, which is a great class [in which] to use this case study,” Joyner said.

Students, like marooned astronaut Mark Watney in The Martian, have to solve problems with limited resources.

“While food scientists don’t normally come across food engineering challenges that are a matter of life and death, we still use those same critical thinking and problem-solving skills to develop solutions to food engineering problems,” Joyner said. “And that’s what Michael and I are focusing on in this case study—not so much picking foods as weighing options, considering different possibilities and developing the best possible solution with the existing tools and constraints.”