What Would a Million People on Mars Eat? GMOs and Maybe Bugs


Oct 6, 2019


Image Credit: "The Martian" (Scott Free Productions/Kinberg Genre/TSG Entertainment)

While mankind’s space colonization dreams continue to gain momentum (especially under the nurturing eye of wildly ambitious tech billionaires) more realistic questions come to light: what would a human civilization eat in its new colony, which is unlikely to share the Earth’s optimal climate and food-growing environment. In a situation where even oxygen might need synthesis — how would humans feed themselves?

New research, carried out by New SpaceThe Journal of Space Entrepreneurship and Innovation, tries to postulate exactly this. The paper looks at the strategies and resources required for a colony of one million to survive on Mars, with a detailed model of population growth, caloric need, land use, and potential food sources. Researchers also believe that while the colony might initially lean heavily on Earth for food imports via SpaceX-like transportation, it would have a good possibility of becoming self-sufficient in 100 years.

“To meet the human right of survival, some minimum daily requirement for calories and nutrition will be a necessary activity for settlement on any moon or planet. Anything above these minimum requirements, however, could be a commercial activity,” says Editor-in-Chief of New Space, Ken Davidian, in a statement. Davidian, who has worked in the commercial space transportation industry for more than 30 years, added, “It’s not hard to imagine that coffee, or extra fruit, or any food item that exceeds the minimum requirements, would be a [replacable] item if customers want to indulge themselves.”

The reference model of Martian civilization that the study used was “based on reasonable assumptions for a Mars settlement: a lower natural birth rate, a delay of five Mars years before native food production starts in earnest, and a linear increase in the fraction of indigenous calories to catch up to population growth within 53 Mars years.” This means people on Mars would have fewer children, would have to wait around a decade before native food production takes off, but then still face slow increases toward feeding the growing Mars colony.

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According to this speculative study, a Mars diet would be based on three major pillars: plants, insects, and cellular agriculture or synthesized meat, fish eggs, and milk. Plants on Mars could grow initially via hydroponics — a method of growing plants without soil — then in Martian soil after they have been sufficiently fertilized to match Earth’s growing conditions. However, all the plants that will grow on Mars will also require heavy genetic modification, which is quite unfortunate for those who lean towards organic food sources.

Another massive source of sustenance would be insects. Insect farming requires comparatively little water and feed and provides a high amount of calories per unit of land used — a low-investment, high-return addition to Martian diets. Insects can be eaten whole or can be converted to flour, meal mixes, powder, even vodka.

The third important source of food that might provide sustenance on Mars is cellular agriculture. Protein-heavy products like meat, milk, and eggs could be created from animal cells without any animal slaughter. Researchers believe that these foods will grow inside bioreactors.

Researchers also believe that food production and distribution might become a significant component of the future nascent Martian economy. This will include both traditional businesses like biotechnology, robotics, and agriculture as well as any potential new industries that could feed the colony’s demand.

For further research, the study’s authors recommended that insect farming and plant growth research receive extra focus and that food production and other life support systems receive development as a connected ecological system. They also recommended that scientists direct more research towards creating growth environments in the harsh Martian climate to sustain a potential population and to cut down greatly on launch costs.

Though the Earth’s rapidly degrading climate may make a Mars colony sound attractive, much work is still required until space colonization becomes a viable reality. While all of that happens, the researchers have put together a website, Eat Like A Martian, to help train the digestive constitutions of potential future Mars colonists.


Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is a culture writer at The Swaddle. Previously, she worked as a freelance journalist focused on gender and cities. Find her on social media @aditimurti.


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