Good News: Potatoes Can Grow on Mars

As private businesses and government agencies begin seriously eyeing Mars as a site of human colonization, questions remain over how such colonies could sustain themselves. Are there any sources of nutrition to be found on Mars? Can the Red Planet sustain agriculture needed to nourish a human colony? To begin answering these questions, scientists conducted a landmark experiment last year which determined that crops grown in (simulated) Martian soil are safe to eat, turning the planet’s most abundant resource (soil) into a usable commodity.

That experiment helped pave the way for this most recent one involving potatoes.

That experiment helped pave the way for this most recent one involving potatoes.

To add to the viability of possible Martian agriculture, the International Potato Center (CIP) has announced the results of a year-long experiment to determine if potatoes can grow and Mars, and it seems french-fry loving astronauts everywhere now have a reason to rejoice. More astonishingly, there is an International Potato Center. Who knew?

See? They have this weird logo and everything.

See? They have this weird logo and everything.

According to a CIP press release, the experiment took place on a CubeSat, a popular new minuscule modular satellite platform. Researchers from the University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Lima, Peru based the experiment off of open-source designs released by NASA. According to Julio Valdivia-Silva, one of the study’s authors and a former SETI engineer, the results are a promising breakthrough in the lead-up to Martian colonization:

If the crops can tolerate the extreme conditions that we are exposing them to in our CubeSat, they have a good chance to grow on Mars. We will do several rounds of experiments to find out which potato varieties do best. We want to know what the minimum conditions are that a potato needs to survive.

Aside from demonstrating that agriculture might one day be possible on the Red Planet, the researchers are hopeful that this experiment might help humanity win the battle against climate change. The simulated Martian soil is comparable to nutrient-poor or high-salinity soils found in a few areas on Earth which make growing crops difficult.

Potato plants poking through the simulated Martian soil.

Potato plants poking through the simulated Mars dirt.

If crops can be grown on Mars, CIP potato breeder Walter Amoros says, there’s no reason they can’t be grown anywhere on Earth as well:

It was a pleasant surprise to see that potatoes we’ve bred to tolerate abiotic stress were able to produce tubers in this soil. The results indicate that our efforts to breed varieties with high potential for strengthening food security in areas that are affected, or will be affected by climate change, are working.

Thus, research into space technology has provided humanity with one more tool to better ourselves. In the face of frequent political pushes to defund governmental space agencies, this discovery shows that the future of humanity indeed lies in outer space – or at least in the attempt to get there. Once we stop aspiring for the stars, we stop trying to further the limits of human imagination.