Pack Your Bags: Scientists Have Successfully Grown Food Using the Kind of Soil Found on Mars

Forget Matt Damon’s green-fingered feats in "The Martian." A team of Dutch researchers is the real deal.

Photo Credit: Lia Koltyrina/Shutterstock

Will humans ever colonize Mars? Considering the fact that humanity has outstripped the Earth's ability to regenerate, consuming the equivalent of 1.6 planets each year, we may have to. And once there, humans will need to grow food.

Thankfully, researchers at the Wageningen University & Research Center in the Netherlands have just announced that they have successfully grown 10 different crop species using soil that mimics the kind found on Mars. The experiment marked the second attempt by Wageningen's group of ecologists and food scientists to grow crops on the Red Planet.

Using information gathered from their first experiment, the team planted seeds in shallow trays filled with either Mars or Moon soil simulants provided by NASA. A few other trays containing more run-of-the mill Earth compost were used as a control. (For those interested in running their own simulation for whatever reason, the Mars soil simulant came from a Hawaiian volcano and the moon soil from an Arizona desert.)

What do these Mars-friendly plants look like, you may wonder? The answer may be somewhat disappointing.

"The total aboveground biomass produced on the Mars soil simulant was not significantly different from the potting compost we used as a control," said researcher Wieger Wamelink. “The goal of the experiments is to provide the basis for growing crops on Mars and on the moon, in order to feed the first settlers.”

While this end goal may seem like a far-flung future, if fellow Dutch-based initiative Mars One has anything to do with it, there could be human settlers on Mars as soon as 2027.

The latest experiment was a marked improvement on the first, which saw most plants die. That said, although the team was able to harvest tomatoes, peas, rye, rocket, radish and cress, the food itself remained largely inedible. Accounting for this, Wamelink explained, "The soils contain heavy metals like lead, arsenic and mercury and also a lot of iron. If the components become available for the plants, they may be taken up and find their way into the fruits, making them poisonous.”

As a result, Wamelink and his colleagues will continue experimenting until they’re able to prepare a table-ready salad.

If you’d like to support this endeavor, the research team has set up a crowdfunding campaign. Their “enticing” reward for pledging support? An invitation to dine with the researchers upon the successful growth of Martian crops. (Or you can go with a simple thank-you card.)


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Robin Scher is a freelance writer from South Africa currently based in New York. He tweets infrequently @RobScherHimself.