Agriculture—and, for that matter, agrochemicals—serve as the essential foundation upon which human civilization built itself. Prior to the rise of agrarian societies, most early human ancestors were hunter-gatherers, exhausting the resources in one area and moving on to the next. This nomadic lifestyle left little time for the development of science, art, or the numerous other fundamentals of culture that we so easily take for granted.
When tribes first discovered the principles of agriculture, they were finally able to settle in one location. This gave them the opportunity to focus more attention on other endeavors. Without farms, humans would have never built cities. We would have never established trade networks connecting our various societies and nations. And we certainly would have never developed the innovations necessary for space travel.
Permanent extraterrestrial colonies
Now, we find ourselves at yet another major turning point in the history of human civilization. NASA and other space agencies, including independent organizations such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, have announced plans to land a human on Mars within the coming decades. These initial missions would theoretically serve as the first of many, as humans begin to establish permanent extraterrestrial colonies.
While it may sound like science-fiction, it’s no longer reasonable to dismiss these claims. Humans are almost certainly going to visit Mars in the near future.
Of course, when they get there, they’ll need a reliable food source. That’s why this isn’t just a critical time for people involved in space exploration—it’s also a critical time for people involved in agriculture. In order to sustain a colony on another planet, the agencies organizing these missions will need help from the brightest thinkers in the industry. You can’t stay on Mars if you can’t grow food there.
Creating a ‘Mars Oasis’
Elon Musk’s plan for what he calls a “Mars Oasis” addresses this concern directly. Potential timelines for an eventual manned mission include an early mission that would involve transporting a small greenhouse to Mars, with nutrients and plants aboard. Engineers would devise a method to ensure that the plants do not begin growing until the greenhouse reaches the surface of Mars. Monitoring their growth cycle remotely from our planet, researchers would have the ability to gather information about the prospects and challenges of cultivating food in a Martian colony.
The researchers will need input from agricultural experts to come up with the most effective solutions to this problem. The essential challenge of the issue involves finding a way to alter a portion of the Martian soil so that it mimics the soil we have on Earth. Although films such as The Martian gloss over this barrier by depicting a few smart people arriving at basic solutions, experts agree that actually achieving this goal will be far from simple. However, they also agree that it can and will be done.
Accounting for gravity differences
Converting the barren Mars soil into nutrient, life-sustaining earth is just one part of the problem, though. Mars receives significantly less sunlight than we do. Colonists will either need to rely on plants that have been engineered to thrive with less exposure to the sun, or they’ll have to use artificial lighting sources to compensate for the difference. They might also need to account for gravity differences, which could theoretically keep plants from growing in the Martian atmosphere.
Then there’s the radiation problem.
Earth is protected from the sun’s radiation due to its remarkably thick atmosphere, a quality that’s not shared by any other planet in the solar system. Some experts believe that the atmosphere of Mars won’t be sufficient to protect crops. Any greenhouse that the first Martian colonists use for growing food will have to be strong enough to block the radiation that could otherwise decimate any plant life.
Creating the first farm on Mars
In other words, starting the first farm on Mars is going to be very difficult. However, people who work in the agriculture and agrochemical industries are used to tackling extremely difficult projects. Throughout nearly all of human history, farmers have encountered these types of problems in one form or another. While no one has ever tried to grow food on another planet before, they have had to grow food in an inhospitable climate, in regions where pests or diseases have threatened crops, and in areas where the soil was barely fertile enough to support even meager plant life.
Yet, they’ve always managed to overcome these obstacles. As visionaries continue to strive towards the eventual goal of establishing a permanent human colony on Mars, agriculture experts have an opportunity to make a major contribution to the history of the human species.
It’s a very exciting time to be a farmer.