Colonies on other worlds are a staple of science fiction and an obsession for rocket-obsessed entrepreneurs, but how do humans go about the business of living long-term once they get to a place like Mars? Alex Tolley has been pondering the question as part of a project he has been engaged in with the Interstellar Research Group. Martian regolith is, shall we say, a challenge, and the issue of perchlorates is only one of the factors that will make food production a major part of the planning and operation of any colony. The essay below can be complemented by Alex’s look at experimental techniques we can use long before colonization to consider crop growth in non-terrestrial situations. It will appear shortly on the IRG website, all part of the organization’s work on what its contributors call MaRMIE, the Martian Regolith Microbiome Inoculation Experiment.
by Alex Tolley
Introduction: Food Production Beyond Hydroponics
Conventional wisdom suggests that food production in the Martian settlements will likely be hydroponic. Centauri Dreams has an excellent post by Ioannis Kokkinidis on hydroponic food production on Mars, where he explains in some detail the issues and how they are best dealt with, and the benefits of this form of food production 
Still from a NASA video on a Mars base showing the hydroponics section.
A recent NASA short video on a very stylish possible design for a Mars base (see still above) shows a small hydroponics zone in the base, although its small size and what looks like all lettuce production would not be sufficient to feed one person, and that is before the monotonous diet would drive the crew to wish they had at least some potatoes from Mark Watney’s stash that could be cooked in a greater variety of ways.
I would tend to agree with the hydroponic approach, as well as other high-tech methods, as these food production techniques are already being used on Earth and will continue to improve, allowing a richer food source without needing to raise animals. Kokkinidis raises the issue of animal meat production for various cuisines, but in reality, the difficulties of transporting the needed large numbers of stock for breeding, as well as the increased demand for primary food production, would seem to be a major issue. [It should be noted that US farming occupies perhaps 2% of the population, yet most commentators on Mars groups seem to think that growing food on Mars will be relatively easy, with preferred animals to provide meat. How many Mars base personnel would be comfortable killing and preparing animals for consumption, even mucking out the pens?]
Hydroponics today is used for high-value crops because of the high costs. Many crops cannot be easily grown in this way. For example, it would be very difficult to grow tree fruits and nuts hydroponically, even though tree wood would be a very useful construction material. On Earth, hydroponics gains the highly desirable much-increased production per unit area coupled with a very high energy cost. It also requires inputs from established industrial processes which would have to be set up from scratch on Mars. Should there need to be lighting as well, low-energy LEDs would be hard to manufacture on Mars and would, initially at least, be imported from Earth.
Hydroponics is attractive to those with an engineering mindset. The equipment is understood, inputs and outputs can be measured and monitored, and optimized, and it all seems of a piece with the likely complexity of the transport ships and Mars base technology. It may even seem less likely to get “dirt under the fingernails” compared to traditional farming, a feature that appeals to those who prefer cleaner technologies. Unfortunately, unlike on Earth, if a critical piece of equipment fails, it will not be easily replaceable from inventory. Some parts may be 3D printable, but not complex components, or electronics. Failure of the hydroponic system due to an irreplaceable part failure would be catastrophic and lead to starvation long before a replacement would arrive from Earth. If ever there was a need for rapid cargo transport to support a Martian base, this need for rapid supply delivery would be a prime driver .
Soil from Regolith
Could more traditional dirt farming work on Mars, despite the apparent difficulties and lack of fine control over plant growth? The discovery that the Martian regolith has toxic levels of perchlorates and would make a very poor soil for plants seems to rule out dirt farming. If the Gobi desert is more hospitable than Mars, then trying to farm the sands of Mars might seem foolhardy, even reckless.
However, after working on a project with the Interstellar Research Group (IRG), I have to some extent changed my mind. If the Martian regolith can be made fertile, it would open up a more scalable and flexible method to grow a greater variety of plant crops than seems possible with hydroponics. Scaling up hydroponics requires far more manufacturing infrastructure than scaling up farming with an amended regolith if regolith remediation does not require a lot of equipment.
So the key questions are how to turn the regolith into viable soil to make such a traditional farming method viable, and what does this farming buy in terms of crop production, variety, and yields?
The first problem is to remove the up to 1% of perchlorates in the regolith that are toxic to plants. While perchlorates do exist naturally in some terrestrial soils, such as the Atacama desert, they are at far lower concentrations. Perchlorates are used in some industrial processes and products (e.g. rocket propellant, fireworks), and spills and their cleanup are monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the USA. Chlorates were used as weedkillers and are potent oxidizers, a feature that I used in my teenage rocket experimentation, but are now banned in the EU.
There are 2 primary ways to remove perchlorates. If there is a readily available water supply, the regolith can be washed and the water-soluble perchlorates can be flushed away. The salt can be removed from the perchlorate solution with a reverse osmosis unit, a mature technology in use for desalination and water purification today. In addition, agitation of the regolith sand and dust can be used to remove the sharp edges of unweathered grains. This would make the regolith far safer to work with, and reduce equipment failure due to the abrasive dust damaging seals and metal joints. Agitation requires the low technology of rotating drums filled with a slurry of regolith and water.
A second, and more elegant approach, is to bioremediate with bacteria that can metabolize the regolith in the presence of water [5,6,7,8]. While it would seem simple to just sprinkle the exposed Martian surface with an inoculant, this cannot work, if only because the temperature on the surface is too cold. The regolith will have to be put into more clement conditions to maintain the water temperature and at least minimal atmospheric pressure and composition. At present, it is unknown what minimal conditions would be needed for this approach to work, although we can be fairly certain that terrestrial conditions inside a pressurized facility would be fine. There are a number of bacterial species that can metabolize chlorates and perchlorates to derive energy from ionized salts. A container or lined pit of graded regolith could be inoculated with suitable bacteria and the removal of the salt monitored until the regolith was essentially free of the salt. This would be the first stage of regolith remediation and soil preparation.
There is an interesting approach that could make this a dual-use system that offers safety features. The bacteria can be grown in a bioreactor, and the enzymes needed to metabolize perchlorates extracted. It has been proposed that rather than fully metabolizing the salt to chloride, enzymes could be applied that will stop at the release of free oxygen (O2). This can be used as life support or oxidant for rocket fuel, or even combustion engines on ground vehicles. The enzymes could be manufactured by gene-engineered single-cell organisms in a bioreactor, or the organisms can be applied directly to the regolith to release the O2 . The design of the Spacecoach by my colleague, Brian McConnell, and me used a similar principle. As the ship used water for propellant and hull shielding, in the case of an emergency, the water could be electrolyzed to provide life-supporting O2 for a considerable time to allow for rescue . Extracting oxygen from the perchlorates with enzymes is a low-energy approach to providing life support in an emergency. A small, portable, emergency kit containing a plastic bag and vial of the enzyme, could be carried with a spacesuit, or larger kits for vehicles and habitat structures.
After the perchlorate is removed from the regolith, what is left is similar to broken and pulverized lava. It may still be abrasive, and need to be abraded by agitation as in the mechanical perchlorate flushing approach.
So far so good. It looks like the perchlorate problem is solved, we just need to know if it can be carried out under conditions closer to Martian surface conditions, or whether it is best to do the processing under terrestrial or Mars base conditions. If the bacterial/enzyme amendment can be done in nothing more than lined and covered pits, or plastic bags, with a heater to maintain water at an optimum temperature, that would be a plus for scalability. If the base is located in or near a lava tube, then the pressurized tube might well provide a lot of space to process the regolith at scale.
Like lunar regolith, it has been established that perchlorate-free regolith is a poor medium for plant growth. Experiments on Mars Regolith Simulant (MRS) under terrestrial conditions of temperature, atmospheric composition, and pressure, indicate that the MRS needs to be amended to be more like a terrestrial soil. This requires nutrients, and ideally, structural organic carbon. If just removing the perchlorates, adding nutrients, and perhaps water-retaining carbon was all that was needed, this might not be too dissimilar to a hydroponic system using the regolith as a substrate. But this is really only part of the story in making fertile soil.
Nitrogen in the form of readily soluble nitrates can be manufactured on Mars chemically, using the 1% of N2 in the atmosphere. It is also possible nitrogen rich minerals on Mars may be found too. Phosphorus is the next most important macronutrient. This requires extraction from the rocks, although it is possible that phosphorus-rich sediments also may be found on Mars.
To generate the organic carbon content in the regolith, the best approach is to grow a cover crop and then use that as the organic carbon source. Fungal and bacterial decomposition, as well as worms, decompose the plants to create humus to build soil. Vermiculture to breed worms is simple given plant waste to feed on, and worm waste makes a very good fertilizer for plants. Already we see that more organisms are going to have to be brought from Earth to ensure that decomposition processes are available. In reality, healthy terrestrial soils have many thousands of different species, ranging in size from bacteria to worms, and ideally, various terrestrial soils would be brought from Earth to determine which would make the best starting cultures to turn the remediated regolith into a soil suitable for growing crops.
Ioannis Kokkinidis indicated that Martian light levels are about the same as a cloudy European day. Optimum growth for many crops needs higher intensity light, as terrestrial experiments have shown that for most plants, increasing the light intensity to Earth levels is one of the most important variables for plant growth. This could be supplied by LED illumination or using reflective surfaces to direct more sunlight into the greenhouse or below-ground agricultural area.
One issue is surface radiation from UV and ionizing radiation. This has usually resulted in suggestions to locate crops below ground, using the surface regolith as a shield. This may not be necessary as a pressurized greenhouse with exposure to the negligible pressure of Mars’ atmosphere, could support considerable mass on its roof to act as a shield. At just 5 lbs/sq.in, a column of water or ice 10 meters thick could be supported. It would be fairly transparent and therefore allow the direct use of sunlight to promote growth, supplemented by another illumination method.
Soil is not a simple system, and terrestrial soils are rich ecosystems of organisms, from bacteria, fungi, and many phyla of small animals, as well as worms. These organisms help stabilize the ecosystem and improve plant productivity. Bacteria release antibiotics and fungi provide the communication and control system to ensure the bacterial balance is maintained and provide important growth coordination compounds to the plants through their roots. The animals feed on the detritus, and the worms also create aeration to ensure that O2 reaches the animals and aerobic fungi and bacteria.
Most high-yield, agricultural production destroys soil structure and its ecosystems. The application of artificial fertilizers, herbicides to kill weeds, and pesticides to kill insect predators, will reduce the soil to a lifeless, mineral, reverting it back to its condition before it became soil. The soil becomes a mechanical support structure, requiring added nutrients to support growth.
Some farmers are trying new ideas, some based on earlier farming methods, to restore the fertility of even poor soils. This requires careful planting schedules, maintenance of cover crops, and even no-tilling techniques that emulate natural systems. Polyculture is an important technique for reducing insect pests. Combined, these techniques can remediate poor soils, eliminate fertilizers and agricultural chemicals, improve farm profitability, and even result in higher net yields than current farm practices. 
Without access to industrial production of agricultural chemicals and nutrients, these experimental farming practices will need to be honed until they work on Mars.
Given we have regolith-based soil what sort of crops can be grown? Almost any terrestrial crop as long as the soil conditions, drainage, pH, and illumination can be maintained.
Unlike on Earth where crops are grown where the conditions are already best, on Mars, it might well be that the crops grown will be part of a succession of crops as the soil improves. For example, in arid regions, millet is a good crop to grow with limited water and nutrients as it grows very easily under poor conditions. Ground cover plants to provide carbon and that fix nitrogen might well be a rotation crop to start and maintain the soil amendment. As the soil improves, the grains can be increased to include wheat and maize, as well as barley. With sufficient water, rice could be grown. None of these crops require pollinators, just some air circulation to ensure pollination.
For proteins, legumes and soy can be grown. These will need pollinating, and it might well be worth maintaining a greenhouse that can include bees. Keeping this greenhouse isolated will prevent bees from escaping into the base. As most of our foods require insect pollination, root crops like potatoes, carrots, and turnips, can be grown, as well as leafy greens like lettuce, and cabbage. The pièce de résistance that dirt farming allows is tree crops. A wide variety of fruit and nuts can be grown. Pomegranates are particularly suited to arid conditions. The leaf litter from such deciduous trees will be further input to improve the soil.
So the soil derived from regolith should allow a wider variety of crops to be grown, and with this, the possible variety of cuisine dishes can be supported. Food is an important component of human enjoyment, and the variety will help to keep morale high, as well as provide an outlet for prospective cooks and foodies.
Are there other benefits? As any gardener knows, growing food in the dirt is less time-consuming than hydroponics as the system is more stable, self-correcting, and resilient. This should allow for more time to be spent on other tasks than constantly maintaining a hydroponic system, where a breakdown must be fixed quickly to prevent a loss.
Meat production is beyond the scope of this essay. I doubt it will be of much importance for two main reasons. Meat production is a very inefficient use of energy. It is far better to eat plants directly, rather than convert them to meat and lose most of the captured energy. The second is the difficulty of transporting the initial stocks of animals from Earth. The easiest is to bring the eggs of cold-blooded animals (poikilotherms) and hatch them on Mars. Invertebrates and perhaps fish will be the animals to bring for food. If you can manage to feed rodents like rabbits on the ship, then rabbits would be possible. But sheep, goats, and cows are really out of the question. A million-resident city might best create factory meat from the crops if the needed ingredients can be imported or locally manufactured. My guess is that most Mars settlers will be Vegetarian or Vegan, with the few flexitarians enjoying the occasional fish or shrimp-based meal.
If you have read this far, it should be obvious that dirt farming sustainably, is not simple, nor is it easy or quick. A transport ship carrying settlers to Mars will have to supply food to eat until the first food crops can be grown. That food will likely be some variant of the freeze-dried, packaged food eaten by astronauts. Hopefully, it will taste a lot better. The fastest way to grow food crops will be hydroponics. All the kit and equipment will have to be brought from Earth. With luck, this system will reduce the demand for packaged food and become fairly sustainable, although nutrients will have to be supplied, nitrogen in particular. I don’t see sacks of nitrogen fertilizer being brought down to the surface, but instead, there may be a chemical reactor to extract the nitrogen in the Martian air and either create ammonia or nitrates for the hydroponic system.
But if the intention, as Musk aims, is to make Mars a second home, starting with 1 million residents, the size of the population that is large enough to provide the skills for modern civilization, then food production is going to need to be far more extensive than a hydroponics system in every dome or lava tube. The best way is to grow the soil as discussed above. This will not be quick and may take years before the first amended regolith becomes rich loamy, fertile soil. The sterile conditions on Mars mean that there will be no free ecosystem services. Every life form will have to originate on Earth and be transported to Mars. But life replicates, and this replication is key to success in the long term. There will be a mixture of biodiverse allotments and tracts of large-scale arable farming. Without some new technology to deflect ionizing radiation, the Martian sunlight will probably need to be indirect and directed to the crops protected by mass shields. Every square meter of Martian sunlight will only be able to support ½ a square meter of crops, so there may need to be an industry manufacturing polished metal mirrors to collect the sunlight and redirect it.
Single-cells for artificial food
Although our sensibilities suggest that the Martian settlers will want real food grown from recognizable food crops, this may be a false assumption. In the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick ignored Clarke’s description in his novel of how food was provided and eaten, with the almost humorous showing of liquid foods with flavors served to Heywood Floyd on his trip to the Moon.
Still from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The flight attendant (Penny Brahms) is bringing the flavored, liquid food trays to the passenger and crew.
Because the Moon does not have terrestrial day-night cycles, the food was single-celled and likely grown in vats, then processed to taste like the foods they were substituting for.
Michaels: Anybody hungry?
Floyd: What have we got?
Michaels: You name it.
Floyd: What’s that, chicken?
Michaels: Something like that.
Michaels: Tastes the same anyway.
Halvorsen: Got any ham?
Michaels: Ham, ham, ham..there, that’s it.
Floyd: Looks pretty good
Michaels: They are getting better at it all the time.
Still from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Floyd and the Clavius Base personnel select sandwiches made from processed algae. Above is the conversation Floyd (William Sylvester) has with Halvorsen (Robert Beatty) and Michaels (Sean Sullivan) on the moon bus on his way to TMA1.
This is where food technology is currently taking us.
Single-cell protein has been available since at least the 18th century with edible yeast. Marmite or Vegemite is a savory, yeast-based, food spread that is an acquired taste. Today there is revived interest in various forms of SCP, some of which are commercially available for consumers, such as Quorn made from the micro-fungus, Fusarium venenatum. The advantage of single cells is that the replication rate is so high that the raw output of bacterial cells can be more than doubled daily. The technology, at least on Earth, could literally reduce huge tracts of agricultural land use, especially of meat animals. However, it does require all the inputs that hydroponic systems require, and further processing to turn the cells into palatable foods including simulated meats. Should such single-cell food production become the basic way to ensure adequate calories and food types for settlers, I suspect that real food will be as desirable as it was for Sol Roth and Detective Thorn in Soylent Green.
Still from the movie Soylent Green. Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson) bites into an apple, stolen by Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston), that he hasn’t tasted in many years since terrestrial farming collapsed.
Physical and Mental Health with Soil
However, even if single-cell bioreactors, food manufacturing, and hydroponics do become the main methods of providing food, that does not mean that creating fertile soils from the regolith is a waste of effort. Surrounded by the ochres of the Martian landscape, the desire to see green and vegetation may be very important for mental health. Soils will be wanted to grow plants to create green spaces, perhaps as lavish as that in Singapore’s Changi Airport. Seeds brought from Earth are a low-mass cargo that can exploit local atoms to create lush landscaping for the interior of a settlement.
Changi Airport, Singapore. A luxurious and restful interior space of tropical plants and trees.
There is a tendency to see life on Mars not just as a blank canvas to start afresh, but also as a sterile world free of diseases and other biological problems associated with Earth. Asimov’s Elijah Bailey stories depicted “germ-free” Spacers as healthier and far longer-lived than Earthmen In their enclosed cities. We now know that our bodies contain more bacterial cells than our mammalian cells. We cannot live well without this microbiome that helps us withstand disease, digest our foods, and even influence our brain development. There is even a suggestion that children that have not been exposed to dirt become more prone to allergies later in life. Studies have shown that most animals have a microbiome with varying numbers of bacterial species. As Mars is sterile, at least as regards a rich terrestrial biosphere, it might well make sense to “terraform” it at least within the settlement cities. Creating soils that will become reservoirs for bacteria, fungi, and a host of other animal species will aid human survival and may become a useful source of biological material for the settlers’ biotechnology.
If Mars is to become a second home for humanity, it will need more people than the villages and small towns that the historical migrants to new lands create. The needed skills to make and repair things are vastly larger than they were less than two centuries ago. Technology is no longer limited to artisans like carpenters, wheelwrights, and blacksmiths, with more complex technology imported from the industrial nations. Now technologies depend on myriad specialty suppliers and capital-intensive factories. Mars will need to replicate much of this in time, which requires a large population with the needed skills. A million people might be a bare minimum, with orders more needed to be largely self-sufficient if the population is to be the backup for a possible future extinction event on Earth. Low-mass, high-value, and difficult-to-manufacture items will continue to be imported, but much else will best be manufactured locally, with a range of techniques that will include advanced additive printing. But some technologies may remain simple, like the age-old fermentation vats and stills. After all, how else will the settlers make beer and liquor for partying on Saturday nights?
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