The impact of space agriculture on terrestrial farming applications.

Astronaut glove holding food crops while illuminated by grow lights

By Davi Souza


As the worldwide human population continues to increase, the concern to meet global nutritional demands is growing as well. A study in 2013 showed that current trends in yield improvement alone will not be sufficient to meet expected global food demand, and suggest that a further expansion of agricultural area may be required. Meanwhile, agriculture is the main driver of loss in biodiversity and a major contributor to climate change and pollution, and so further expansion may even be considered undesirable. Other global trends are influencing food (in)security, poverty, and the overall sustainability of farming systems, while the world’s population is projected to grow to almost 10 billion by 2050, boosting agricultural demands (FAO, 2017). However, the future of food may not be so bleak. For instance, advances in agricultural technologies may allow for improved yields with minimal environmental impact. One realm where such technologies are actively being developed comes from perhaps the least likely of places — space exploration. Designing and developing the technologies needed to grow foods in space may be a key to the future of food on Earth as well. The space-perspective may be a needed model approach for the future.

Nowadays, to make food production feasible and secure for everyone it will require the development of new and green technologies. Although investments and technological innovations have enhanced productivity, food losses and waste still claim a significant proportion of agricultural output — reducing these would lessen the need to increase yields. (Bajželj et al., 2014). The development of sustainable and environmentally friendly farming systems is essential, especially in regards to water supply and resource reuse in agriculture. According to UNOOSA[3], space technologies and their applications are indispensable, not only in addressing the long-term effects of agriculture in space, but also in research about self-sustaining off-grid ecosystems. The technologies developed for space agriculture may thus aid in the mitigation of humanitarian emergency situations in arid and semiarid areas affected by drought, high temperatures, and water scarcity (UNOOSA, 2015).

Based on that, when we talk about food production in space, it is possible to address some important questions, such as: 

  • How will food production be carried out in outer space? 
  • What factors should we consider for space farming systems? 
  • Which technological solutions will be used in these systems? 
Mixed greens (mizuna, red romaine lettuce and tokyo bekana cabbage) cultivated with the Veggie system. Source: NASA

These are some questions that are currently being explored in space exploration. Consider the case of potential future agricultural systems on Mars, which is located 550 million km away from Earth. Depending on the position rate of the planet in its orbital trajectory, food transportation and re-supply from Earth will be costly. Therefore, with the goal of establishing a sustainable human presence beyond Earth, the production of staple and nutritive crops will be fundamental.

 Space agriculture studies, while still in their infancy, have been developing since the first plant growth chambers were sent to space. With such research occurring on the Russian Mir station and the International Space Station, the operation of these systems has generated many useful results about plant cultivation in space. Current experiments like Veggie and Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) have informed on potential constraints and opportunities for future development of space greenhouses. However, such research is also invaluable to terrestrial farming due to research and development outcomes in resource saving and sustainable food production.

Dwarf Wheat cultivated within APH. Source: Apogee Instruments

From studies on agriculture in space, crop scientists and researchers have realized that space farming will require not only a high yield in a limited area, but will also need smart use of water and energy resources inside controlled ecosystems. When looking to meet food demands of future settlers on Mars satisfactorily, the use of technologies such as sensing and automation will ensure greater efficiency in the production process (and the development of these technologies will certainly be beneficial to agriculture on Earth).

In addition to the technological resources, sustainability will also be a determining factor for space agriculture as well as for extreme environments that operate under stressful conditions for crop growth. Solutions in the realm of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) lead to the integration of technologies to grow crops inside high-performance controlled environments. By using automated processes and optimized systems, it will make possible more efficient use of inputs and outputs, mitigate risks, and better monitor agricultural activities. These outcomes will provide capabilities not only to solve problems in the water-food-energy nexus on Earth, but also present satisfactory results on food cultivation before being applied in crewed missions on the Moon, Mars, and beyond. 

NASA astronauts Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren eating fresh crops cultivated aboard the ISS for the first time. Source: NASA

According to research by Dr. Irene Lia Schlacht, a researcher in design for future innovations in extreme environments, and her colleagues (2016), technological exchange generated from space-based systems as applied to Earth become an important problem solving facilitator and promote the self-reliance of people and communities in poverty [4]. Also, when we are looking forward to economy and productivity in farming systems, it is necessary to take into account the procedures on resource saving and environmental control as the main requirements for an optimum yield. Based on that, understanding more resilient cultivation models capable of withstanding extreme conditions on other planets will allow the human species to be able to easily adapt to changes that may be experienced. From the same perspective, when we deal with plant growth systems for terrestrial extreme environments, we must implement efficient models to generate more outputs with less impact and waste. If we can develop such systems, they will not only help feed astronauts in space, but they will also help us overcome problems here on Earth — such as hunger, food security, water scarcity, and the climate crisis.

When considering agriculture in space, we use concepts related to agriculture here on Earth, which also shows us the importance of finding ways to engage terrestrial farming with space agriculture. Thus, initiatives on implementing a self-contained growth system on Earth could provide not only year-round food production and high yield to fight hunger, but also could  be presented as a creative approach to create a populational resilience strategy. Leveraging the space spin-offs (or space technology transfer) approach we are now open to a new horizon of technological deliverables that can support current agricultural systems to achieve the required production and provide secure access to adequate food for all, while reducing negative impacts of climate change. Space exploration not only generates knowledge for human living off Earth, but also helps us to find solutions to societal problems and inspires people to act for a more humanized and sustainable society.


REFERENCES:

[1] Bajželj, B., Richards, K., Allwood, J. et al. Importance of food-demand management for climate mitigation. Nature Clim Change 4, 924–929 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2353
[2] FAO. 2017. The future of food and agriculture – Trends and challenges. Rome. 
[3] United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). Space for Agriculture Development and Food Security, 2015. Available at http://www.unoosa.org/res/oosadoc/data/documents/2016/stspace/stspace69_0_html/st_space_69E.pdf
[4] Schlacht, I.L., Foing, B., Blok, F., Nebergall, K., Kolodziejczyk, A., Mangeot, A., Bannova, O., Ono, A., Schubert , D., (2016) Space Analog Survey: Review of Existing and New Proposal of Space Habitats with Earth Applications. (ICES-2016-367) 46th International Conference on Environmental Systems, Vienna, Austria. https://ttu-ir.tdl.org/bitstream/handle/2346/67692/ICES2016_367_Space-Analog-Survey.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
[5] Souza, D. A. F. and Rezende, J. F. D. “Agriculture in Mars: Habitat Marte findings”, 71st International Astronautical Congress (IAC), The CyberSpace Edition, 2020.
[6] Souza, D. A. F. “How does electrical engineering inform off-planet food production?”. published by Filling in Space, 2021. https://filling-space.com/2021/01/22/how-does-electrical-engineering-inform-off-planet-food-production/


Davi Souza is an electrotechnician and electrical engineering student at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte/UFRN, Research Associate for the BMSIS Young Scientist Program and Analog Astronaut in Habitat Marte Analog Space Station. Also, in February 2021, he was named Young Space Leader in Brazil by the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB).