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Scientists successfully grow a potato in Mars-like conditions

Potatoes at a gardeners’ market. (Clemens Bilan/Getty Images)

By Ese Olumhense

Project shows promise for food production in dry areas

Using a simulator that replicates the extreme environmental conditions present on Mars, Peruvian scientists have successfully grown a small potato plant, a feat that the researchers say bodes well for both extraterrestrial agriculture and food production in dry regions of the globe.

“It’s not only about bringing potatoes to Mars, but also finding a potato that can resist non-cultivable areas on Earth,” astrobiologist Julio Valdivia of Peru’s University of Engineering and Technology told the Associated Press (AP) on Thursday.

Valdivia is collaborating with a team at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., who helped him design the Mars environment simulator. It features below-zero temperatures, a high concentration of carbon monoxide, and the air pressure found at an altitude of nearly 20,000 feet. Work began on the potato project in 2016; both teams will continue attempting to grow potato plants in more extreme conditions to get a wider range of results.

As the AP reported on Thursday, NASA has conducted similar studies in the past. Most of this work, however, has centered on optimizing extraterrestrial environments to increase food and oxygen outputs, also known as terraforming.

Space spuds and the f-word

Here on Earth, the new research could help solve the famines that threaten an estimated 20 million people around the world, among them approximately 1.4 million children. As Valdivia said, the success of the potato experiment means that food could likely be grown in “non-cultivable areas” of Earth, including deserts and other arid regions that don’t typically receive enough rainfall to sustain agriculture.

Global aid groups, including the United Nations (UN) and the World Food Program (WFP), are warning of the current risk of famine in three such areas — Somalia, Yemen, and in parts of Nigeria. In South Sudan, the world’s newest country, the UN recently designated a famine in some areas, affecting more than one million.

“Famine has become a tragic reality in parts of South Sudan and our worst fears have been realized,” said Serge Tissot, a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative in South Sudan. “Many families have exhausted every means they have to survive.”

Most of the food insecurity in these regions is the result of civil conflict — the UN has called this widespread food scarcity the most pressing humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II. A Friday WFP report said “severe” food insecurity is “worsening” globally.

Famine occurs when three conditions are met. Roughly one-third (or more) of the population in a given area is acutely malnourished; at least 20 percent of the population in the specific area has extremely limited access to food; and the death rate in this group must exceed two per 10,000 people each day. “Famine is not a word that we use lightly,” Erminio Sacco, a food security expert with the FAO, told Al-Jazeera in a February interview on the crisis.

Will outer space become a haven for the wealthy?

The AP and others have pointed out the parallels between the Mars potato experiment and the 2015 movie The Martian, starring Matt Damon, who played an astronaut stranded in space. (Spoiler alert: Damon’s character survives the ordeal by growing potatoes on Mars.)

Scientists in real life are closer than ever to growing food in extreme conditions, which means that humans might really be able to live in space someday. A NASA expert, speaking to the AP, mentioned “deploying” plant growth systems “before humans arrive” on other planets.

The image that statement conjures — of humans possibly moving to space — is a lot like the plot of another Matt Damon sci-fi film, Elysium. Set several decades in future, Elysium depicts a world in which the rich move to a luxurious space station, while everyone else is stranded on an environmentally-depleted Earth.

While the movie takes place in a world that’s at least centuries away, private citizens are already planning their travel to space. SpaceX, the company which designs, makes, and launches spacecraft, announced this year that it would send two “very serious” passengers on a trip around the moon in late 2018. The pair has paid a “significant deposit,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and, since he’s promised the trips will be a “significant driver of revenue,” one can safely assume the round trip tickets were not cheap. As The Verge points out, one berth on a Russian rocket cost NASA around $80 million.

There’s no telling yet if space will indeed become a haven for the wealthy. In the meantime, though, scientists dreaming in that direction will probably improve life here on Earth.