Editor’s Note: Evan Fraser is director of Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph, Canada. Lenore Newman is director of Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, Canada. They are co-authors of a new book, “Dinner on Mars: The Technologies That Will Feed the Red Planet and Transform Agriculture on Earth.” The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
What might humans eat on Mars? With space agencies including NASA and China’s National Space Administration hoping to send crewed missions to Mars within the next two decades, and tech billionaires like Elon Musk developing plans to colonize the red planet, feeding a Martian community would be a key question to solve.
With a round-trip taking over a year, Mars is much too far for takeout. And it costs $10,000 to lift a single pound of material off Earth, which means space explorers would not be able to bring their own supplies either. If humanity is ever to make it on the red planet, we will have to develop self-sustaining systems to produce food in one of the harshest environments imaginable.
The best photos of Mars
Prepping a Martian meal would be be one of the most technically challenging problems our species has ever confronted. Off Earth, every molecule of water, every scrap of organic matter and every photon of energy is a vital resource that cannot be wasted. A community on Mars would be exposed to punishing radiation and temperatures that could range from minus 220 degrees Fahrenheit to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Tasty and nutritious meals would be crucial to the psychological as well as the physical health of space pioneers.
But it would be worth the effort. The technology that would allow us to sustain life on Mars could help solve some of our most pressing problems.
Let’s walk through our vision of what a resident of the red planet would eat on a typical day – and how the technology needed to produce that food could benefit life here on Earth.
Our Martian starts their day with a high-protein chocolate chip breakfast bar, washed down with a cup of coffee.
Coffee on Mars would be like coffee on Earth, either cheaper instant coffee (with artificial caffeine and flavor) or more expensive real beans that would be a luxury produced in a domed crater that serves as a giant greenhouse. Solar panels, filters and balloon-mounted mirrors would harvest what little sunlight makes it to Mars to illuminate the greenhouse, while screening out harmful radiation.
The real magic, however, is in the breakfast bar. It is made of algae grown in tanks filled with water that would be harvested by melting ice found in the Martian regolith (sandy soil). The algae would be fertilized with both locally mined minerals and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This high protein product would be bred to mimic the taste and texture of grains, such as oats, that are commonly found on the terrestrial breakfast table. Although eating algae may sound weird, many of us already consume spirulina, which is a blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) known for being highly nutritious.
Lunch takes place in the main cafeteria where every inch of spare space is filled with greenery, because a core design principle on Mars is to ensure that every photon of solar energy is used to grow plants. On the menu is a leafy salad tossed with plant-based protein cubes and seasoned with salty seaweed flakes, accompanied by a milkshake.
The salad greens are grown in hydroponic solutions under LED lights that are timed to ensure each plant gets the right wavelength of light, at the right intensity, and at the right moment to optimize growth. Most of these plants are cultivated underground, safe from radiation, in an atmosphere enriched with carbon dioxide (plants generally do better when carbon dioxide levels are a bit higher than is comfortable for humans).
The seaweed is grown in the tanks along with the algae that went into the breakfast bar.
The accompanying milkshake is made from dairy proteins produced in specially designed fermentation facilities that use microorganisms to convert starches and sugars into dairy products.
Most of the technologies going into this lunch menu already exist. Today, vertical farms grow plants indoors and without sunlight in major cities around the world. Although the number of crops they currently produce is limited, within five years many more fruits and vegetables will be produced year-round indoors, regardless of location, helping to ensure food security.
And climate-friendly, cow-free dairy products are already on supermarket shelves. For example, California-based Perfect Day uses fungi to make dairy protein that is molecularly identical to the whey protein in cow’s milk, and has been used to make cream cheese, yoghurt and ice cream.
Dinner begins with an appetizer of tomato and avocado garnished with seeds and nuts, followed by slices of salmon sashimi and boiled potatoes. For dessert, ice cream and small pastries are served alongside fresh berries. As an extravagance, there is even some Martian wine.
The veggies and berries come from the same vertical farms that produced the salad greens served for lunch, while the nuts, avocados and grapes for the wine come from the small number of tree crops planted in the greenhouses, which have different zones designed to mimic different biomes on Earth. Because trees take up more space and only produce a crop after a few years of growth, these delicacies are considered a luxury on Mars.
The sashimi comes from salmon stem cells, cultured in a lab on Earth and now grown in bioreactors until they are ready to be 3D printed into firm, tasty morsels. The potatoes are a throwback, produced the old-fashioned way in the greenhouse.
Because potato cultivation uses less space and fertilizer than grain crops like wheat and rice, the pastries served for dessert are also made from potato starch.
All the technologies that support dinner are well underway on Earth today – for example, California-based startup Wildtype is creating sushi-grade salmon by cultivating cells extracted from salmon eggs.
But cellular agriculture is still in the early stages of becoming commercially viable – at present, Singapore is the only country to have approved cell-based meat for consumer consumption. We don’t yet produce it at scale and more research is needed to develop cost-effective growth mediums that the rapidly growing cells need. There’s also a lot of work to be done identifying and cultivating the stem cell lines needed to make the different types of muscle and fat responsible for the taste and texture of a good piece of meat.
Most of us crave a bit of comfort food late in the day, so we imagine our future space explorers will need to kick back a bit too – with a few deep-fried salty protein balls and either a carbonated beverage or a distilled potato-based vodka drink.
Back to Earth
Right now, we desperately need to find new ways to feed people here on Earth because our food systems are a mess. Food production is responsible for one third of all human-made global greenhouse gas emissions and uses more land and water than any other human activity, while also being the biggest source of water pollution. Feeding the Earth’s human population comes at the expense of biodiversity, driving species extinction and habitat loss. Yet at the same time, a third of the world’s food is wasted. Malnutrition, obesity and hunger are all rising.
Working towards establishing a community on Mars is likely to give us tools that help to solve some of these problems. Everything – habitable space, water and plant nutrients – will be scarce on Mars, which means that feeding a city on the red planet will teach us how to become much more efficient on Earth.
But the technologies aren’t a panacea and the benefits of building a Martian food system go beyond innovations like cellular meat. This is because, ironically, building a city on Mars would also help us reconnect to the logics of nature. On Earth, nature works in cycles. A leaf falls from a tree, decomposes, and returns to the soil where it helps to grow another leaf. But Earth-agriculture no longer follows such cycles; instead, we consume resources and create waste.
A food system on Mars cannot work this way. On Mars, fermentation facilities would be fed using starches and cellulose left over after food plants have been harvested and processed. Every scrap of organic waste will be carefully composted and fed back into the production process, creating a circular food system such that the waste products from one step immediately become inputs for another.
As we develop advanced food production technologies, and design closed-loop food systems capable of feeding Mars, we are also developing the technologies and skills needed to rework the food system here on Earth.
By launching humans to another planet, we can learn to save our own.