Scientists in Antarctica are running out of excuses not to eat their veggies, following the first vegetable harvest on the inhospitable continent. Thankfully, this isn’t a scary climate change story – but this scientific triumph is one that helps make the case for an eventual human outpost on Mars.
Researchers at Germany’s Neumayer Station III have announced the first successful harvest in an ambitious test program to eventually grow life-sustaining produce on other planets. The futuristic agriculture project, called Eden ISS, transformed a recycled shipping container into a windowless vegetable garden capable of sustaining delicate plant life even as temperatures outside dropped to negative digits.
The first picking at Neumayer Station consisted of 70 radishes, 18 cucumbers and 8 pounds of salad greens. Though that first harvest might sound modest, consider this: the Eden ISS project was only just built in the early months of 2018. Once scientists hit their stride, the hope is that each repurposed shipping container will be able to provide 10 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables per week. And perhaps surprisingly, the learning curve here has been incredibly short. The Eden team says it will be operating at peak efficiency by May of this year.
So how did scientists manage to grow their own food on a continent whose defining feature is its uninhabitable climate and terrain? By eschewing nearly everything we associate with traditional farming. The Eden ISS greenhouse contains no soil and no sunlight. Instead, aeroponic crops are bathed in saturated violet light produced by LED lamps, as carbon dioxide-enriched air is pumped through the shipping container. Nutrient-rich fertilizers are sprayed onto the roots of each plant. And any germs or bugs that manage to live through their pilgrimage to the Antarctic are destroyed in an airlock upon entering.
If this all sounds a bit space age, that’s likely because it is meant to. The Eden project is a test run for eventual aeroponic gardens on both the Earth’s moon and our celestial next door neighbor, Mars. Each person aboard the International Space Station consumes nearly 2 pounds of food per day, .27 pounds of which is made up just of packaging materials. NASA estimates that in order to sustain a four-person crew on the three year flight to Mars, it will take 24,000 pounds of food. The ability to immediately begin growing their own fresh food upon touching down on Mars would mean a dramatically lighter load is necessary for a voyage to the red planet.
The Eden ISS growhouse isn’t the only space-age farming project that has seen success in recent years. Scientists installed a zero-gravity greenhouse called Lada aboard the International Space Station in 2002. After years of observing gravityless plant growth in orbit around the Earth, scientists finally began eating the fruits – actually, the vegetables – of their labor in 2015 once Earthbound research teams confirmed that the space produce was indeed safe for human consumption. The first Lada produce to be savored by human lips? Romaine lettuce.
Though the primary goal of the Eden and Lada greenhouse projects rests in space colonization, the lessons learned are already being applied here at home. The success of Eden’s closed-circuit shipping container farm in Antarctica bodes well for similar containers that could be deployed in equally inhospitable regions like scorching hot deserts, mile-high mountain peaks, or even on the ocean floor. With that said, I’m calling it right now: 2022’s hottest food trend will be Antarctic violet light coffee.