An Urban's Rural View

Growing Potatoes on Mars

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Will "The Martian" win the Oscar for best picture? Maybe. Is it the best new movie with an agricultural motif? Definitely.

Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, an astronaut who has been mistakenly left for dead on Mars. Stranded, alone, on a faraway planet, he struggles to let earth know he's alive so he might eventually be rescued. Meanwhile, to keep himself fed, he grows potatoes. Watney happens to be a botanist -- "the best botanist on the planet," he boasts.

Safe bet: He's the only botanist on the planet; indeed, he's the only living thing on the planet. And that planetary inertness is why, as I watched, I wondered if even Earth's best botanist could really grow potatoes on Mars. While I trusted a man could use his own feces for fertilizer, as Watney did, I doubted there would be enough other nutrients in soil with zero percent organic matter.

Shows what I know. Just Google the headline of this post -- Growing Potatoes on Mars -- to see plenty of real botanists saying it could be done, though most question, in one way or another, how Watney went about it. NASA is even funding studies on Martian agronomy.

The kibitzers pose several objections to Watney's spud-raising technique: He should have rinsed out the toxic perchlorates in Mars' soil before planting, one says. He shouldn't have mixed his own live waste with the freeze-dried waste of the teammates who abandoned him, exposing himself to their pathogens, says another.

A third suggests that instead of making his own rocket fuel to get water for the plants, he should have drilled underground, now that we know there is, or was, water on Mars, or at least some parts of it. Still others think he should have used hydroponics to grow salad vegetables, as the astronauts are doing on the International Space Station, or pinto beans, or both.

Where he would have gotten the seeds, much less the water, is unclear. What's clear is that second-guessers could theoretically raise even more objections to Watney's ways if they strayed from the question, "Could it be done, and if so how?"

One kind of critic might complain, "Watney is growing a monoculture crop here. This is bad for the Martian environment." Another might huff, "White potatoes should not be on a growing astronaut's diet." Watney ate his potatoes with ketchup until the supply ran out, and ketchup, after all, has a lot of sugar—or even, in some cases (God forbid!), high-fructose corn syrup. The grounds for second-guessing are endless.

On the other hand, organic-ag fans might observe with satisfaction that Watney applies no chemicals to his crop. He has lots of problems, but tubeworms and nematodes aren't among them. And while the red planet's soil isn't organic, it does contain sodium, potassium and other mineral nutrients.

Maybe not such a bad place to farm, after all. Especially if you like potatoes.

And for all the kibitzing, "The Martian" is better than a lot of science-fiction films in fidelity to science. "I'm going to have to science the s**t out of this," Watney says at one point in the movie. He and the movie's makers apparently got a lot of the science right.

Urban Lehner



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Bonnie Dukowitz
10/25/2015 | 7:01 AM CDT
No Enviro's on Mars?
Nathan Richard
10/22/2015 | 5:15 AM CDT
I think the key question is what kind of potato did Watney grow?? Hopefully not a russett as he would have needed a full stick of butter and sour cream to choke it down. In his vast list of options for which seed piece to choose ('seed' for potato production is actually a cut piece from a live tuber) hopefully he choose a yellow that he could have enjoyed plain!