What does growing potatoes on Mars mean for Earth’s farmers? In the movie The Martian, Matt Damon plays a stranded astronaut who has to grow his own food on the red planet. (Giles Keyte/Twentieth Century Fox/Thinkstock)
What does growing potatoes on Mars mean for Earth’s farmers?
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Matt Damon made it look easy in the Hollywood blockbuster, but Mars and Earth aren't really all that different after all.

In the blockbuster movie "The Martian", Matt Damon plays Mark Watney. He's a brainy botanist who coaxes spuds to sprout in otherwise lifeless dirt.

As the population rises here on Earth, there are plenty of harsh, foodless environments. The environments could be improved with a little ingenuity. The plot is rooted in plausible science. It turns out that much of what Damon's character did to turn his Martian "hab" into a makeshift greenhouse is applicable here.

The film's release dovetails with the United Nation's International Year of Soils. The film probably does as much to raise awareness that soil, like water, is a limited resource. That's according to Harold van Es. He's a soil scientist at Cornell University.

Soil is created when glaciers, wind or other elements slowly transform rock materials into something softer and more fertile. Scientists say it can take 200 to 400 years to form one centimeter of new soil. 

Meanwhile, human actions are causing soil erosion and degradation at alarming rates. These include slash-and-burn agriculture, deforestation and global warming. Also, arable soil gets lost to pollution.

"Going to Mars is a very interesting prospect.  But ultimately that will be very difficult," van Es says. "We need to learn to live with larger numbers of people on this planet."

The movie depicts Watney taming inhospitable Martian soils. First, he creates water from rocket fuel. This is perfectly reasonable science. That's according to Jim Bell. He's a planetary scientist from Arizona State University. He is an expert on Martian dirt. That water comes in handy for rehydrating freeze-dried human feces. Watney uses it as fertilizer. 

Poop isn't that far fetched as a soil amendment on Earth. Washington, D.C., is among a growing number of cities turning what's flushed down toilets into compost. The city's garden plots are already using that nitrogen-rich compost. It is used to improve depleted urban soils. It can grow a mean tomato.

One of van Es' students is also using treated toilet materials to grow food.  He is using it in Nairobi, Kenya. There, a legacy of growing maize has depleted the soils over time. First it is charred to stabilize it. Then it can infuse nitrogen. This puts necessary minerals back into the soil.

Watney had to conserve every drop of water he created on Mars. He even used a futuristic water reclaimer. It is similar to what real-life astronauts use. They use it on the International Space Station to recycle their wastewater.

We also do this to some extent on Earth. It is called "gray water." Gray water washes down bathroom sinks. Then it is recycled to water golf courses. It also keeps machinery from overheating. As drought stretches on in much of the American West, gray water isn't just recycled for irrigation but is increasingly being marketed as drinking water as well, after treatment steps that include filtering and UV exposure.

One issue "The Martian" didn't address is that on the real Mars, astronaut farmers would have to contend with contaminants in the dirt. In 1999, NASA's Phoenix lander discovered a nasty material called perchlorate in Mars soil that's "very harmful to life as we know it," Bell says.

Back on Earth, farmers in some areas have already had to deal with potentially dangerous pollution. Many urban soils contain traces of their industrial pasts in the form of lingering lead or arsenic. The most common solution involves piling untainted soil on top or into growing containers.

But closed-loop systems show great potential for working around poor soils or actually improving them. This includes hydroponics that grow fish and plants in symbiosis, or systems that rotate crops to infuse nutrients back into the soil.

Scientists are also learning how to grow crops in the radioactive environments associated with planets that lack Earth's atmospheric protection. Nuclear power plant accidents, if you can say they have a silver lining, have given researchers the chance to discover crops that thrive in radioactive soils. Oil-rich flax plants, for example, flourished near Russia's Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

But human ingenuity aside, the best path to a flourishing future food supply is to not waste the resources we have in the first place.

"The movie brings out the idea that human life really depends on our ability to produce food," says van Es. "We take that for granted."

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
How are Mars and Earth similar?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (60)
  • ben0424-yyca-byo
    3/30/2016 - 10:41 p.m.

    This is an interesting topic. I didn't see the movie, "The Martian", but it seems interesting. I did want to see it, but had no time. Growing food is very important, but some people don't take it to consider. I don't either, but I should start. Maybe have a private garden and grow some food to cook and eat myself. This would be interesting.
    Critical Thinking Question Answer: It seems possible to grow food in both places, but with the dangerous chemicals in the soil in Mars, it seems impossible.

  • Eric0221-YYCA
    3/30/2016 - 10:42 p.m.

    The scientists might have been able to get the idea of farming on the red planet that people are trying to find out how to farm on the very poisonous soil that the soil on Mars have to not make plants thrive on the soil. People had first investigated Mars's soil which the rover on Mars had found out that the soil contained something that is poisonous for plants to be thriving on Mars's soil. The people might have been able to find out about Mars that contains something that is too poisonous for plants to be able to thrive on the red planet's soil. Scientists had been able to find out how to fertilize Mars's soil so that it would be safe enough for plants to be thriving on the planet that people had been able to get the idea from, The Martians.
    Critical Thinking Question: How are Mars and Earth similar?
    Answer: Mars and Earth are similar because they both have water and soil but what is different is that the soil on earth is healthy for planets to thrive and on Mars, the soil is too poisonous to make plants thrive.

  • kelsier-
    3/31/2016 - 11:12 a.m.

    I think when they find out how to grow crops on Mars, I think it would be very cool. I would be one giant leap closer to being able to live on Mars.

  • romans-1-hol
    3/31/2016 - 04:36 p.m.

    Interesting

  • derianv-hol
    3/31/2016 - 04:38 p.m.

    Wow patatos on Mars

  • jacks-6-bar
    3/31/2016 - 06:47 p.m.

    Mars and Earth are similar because they both have limited resources and harmful bacteria and/or chemicals within the soil.
    The article states: "As the population rises here on Earth, there are plenty of harsh, foodless environments." Mars, similarly to Earth, is a harsh environment, with freezing temperatures, rough terrain, and a toxic atmosphere. However, the Martian, belittled qualities can relate to Earth; Earth, as the article stated, does have undesired, harmful conditions with its environment. Though Mars does have a significantly more inhospitable climate compared to Earth, they both do share the fact of a relatively bad, overall condition; some Earth areas, as the article stated, could be quite destitute (not quite to the magnitude of what Mars has to offer, but considerable as the martian environment is). These shared characteristics make the two planets somewhat similar.
    Another reason Mars and Earth are similar is that they are home to harmful products, specifically in their soil. The article states: "In 1999, NASA's Phoenix lander discovered a nasty material called perchlorate in Mars soil that's "very harmful to life as we know it," Bell says." Like Mars, Earth is plagued with a harmful interior of its soil. With farmers constantly put pesticides on plants to keep undesired, hungry guests away, it not only hurts the plant, but contaminates the soil, releasing harmful, non-organic components into the soil. Also, harmful bacteria can thrive in Earth soils, such as fertilizer and manure; they are beneficial to plants, yet not humans or most animals, being made of feces. Other inhabitants of earthen soil include viruses and disease. Obviously, Earth's soil, similarly to Mars, consisting of the highly dangerous material of perchlorate, is quite dangerous, containing its own harmful components.
    This article was quite interesting; I hadn't known how many things The Martian had highlighted that was already, mainly in practice when it was released, as both a book and movie. It was surprising to see how similar the Earth and Mars, though being millions of miles away, literally on different worlds, could be.

  • taylorl-3-bar
    3/31/2016 - 07:41 p.m.

    I think when they found out how to grow crops on Mars, I think it would be very cool. I would be one giant leap closer to being able to live on Mars. I chose this article because I saw the title and wanted to know more about it.

  • harace-cam
    3/31/2016 - 11:55 p.m.

    Surface of Mars and Earth are both composed of soil and steel.

  • stevend-obr
    4/01/2016 - 01:38 p.m.

    How are Mars and Earth similar? They are probabaly many similaritys, but one think they have in common is "gray water." Gray water washes down bathroom sinks. Then is recycled to water golf courses. It also keeps machinery from overheating.

  • madisenl-obr
    4/01/2016 - 01:48 p.m.

    Mars and Earth are alike in many ways. On both planets soil is hard to find. Earth's soil is starting to become scarce because of slash-and-burn agriculture, deforestation, and global warming. Science says it takes somewhere between 200 and 400 years just to create one centimeter of new soil. The soil on Mars must be different Earth's because Mars doesn't have the same elements as Earth. Mars and Earth soil both have dangerous chemicals or materials hiding in the particles.

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