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Big Idea

Bugs, anyone? How to feed a Mars colony

Tackling the food supply in space might give us some ideas for Earth

By Schuyler Velasco

An Earth colony on Mars isn’t just a sci-fi fantasy: NASA hopes to put astronauts on the Red Planet in the late 2030s, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX has announced it wants to launch its own manned Mars missions by 2050. But if humans settle on Mars, what will they eat? According to experts, it’s not the canned and dehydrated meals that fuel today’s astronauts. It’s sustainable agriculture grown in small, tightly controlled spaces for maximum efficiency.

The problem: How to feed permanent space colonies

Since a trip to Mars would take about nine months — and launch windows would be limited — it’s unrealistic to think Mars colonists could simply get their grocery deliveries from Earth. “If you’re really thinking long term, then you need to produce food locally,” says Kevin Cannon, a postdoctoral researcher in planetary science at the University of Central Florida. “The sooner you start doing that, the better.”

The trouble is, the surface of Mars can’t support life as we know it, Cannon says. Water is scarce. Sunlight is in short supply. “Everything has to be taken inside into a controlled environment.” That means space for crops is limited.

Another consideration: Mars settlers would have an active, physically demanding lifestyle, which means they’d need extra calories. So far, a lot of research into possible food sources has focused on growing plants — think Matt Damon’s potatoes in “The Martian.” But a plant-based diet may not be enough.

The solution

How about crickets? Insect farming, which has gained traction on the terrestrial food scene in recent years, could have several advantages for Mars settlers. Crickets, which taste a bit like nuts and are very crunchy, are high in protein and require less space, resources, and manpower to produce than other animal products.

In “Feeding One Million People on Mars,” a study published in the academic journal “New Space,” Cannon and co-author Daniel Britt evaluated the potential of growing various food sources on Mars. The study concluded that crickets were the most efficient — they produce the most mass in proportion to the amount of space they take up. They’re also low-maintenance, and can be grown and stored in the dark — another energy-saver. Plus, “some of the cricket farms on earth, they’re highly automated. Robots go down the shelves and feed them automatically,” Cannon says.

The downside

They’re bugs. Though cricket powder and protein bars are popping up in North American grocery stores, most people aren’t “crunching down on exoskeletons” yet, Cannon says. Many of the products currently on the market are “a bit gimmicky,” he says; those energy bars might only contain 2 percent cricket flour. “If you really wanted to get the most out of it, you’d have to move towards eating whole crickets, or products where it’s the main ingredient,” he says. That would require a cultural shift or a colony full of adventurous eaters.

The big picture

In the face of climate change, creative approaches to the food supply are needed on Earth, too. Cannon and his colleagues have come up with The Martian Diet, which can be nearly replicated on our home planet. “The constraints…force you to maximize productivity, and think about things like genetic modification,” he says, citing golden rice, a controversial, Vitamin-A-fortified grain being introduced in famine-stricken countries to address malnutrition.

“You can take some of the best of the sustainable practices from Earth and translate those into space,” Cannon says. “Then, I think it goes both ways: if you develop very efficient farming and food production practices for space, then you can take some of that research and bring it back to Earth.”

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Schuyler Velasco is senior editor at Experience.

Illustration by Verónica Grech