Hundreds of millions of people around the world suffer from malnutrition and hunger, and more might join them as climate change intensifies, threatening food stocks. GMOs, new agricultural techniques and robots will help level the field. When and if things go horribly wrong, however, we need to know which crops are best suited to meet our needs: yield, nutrients and resilience. The Peru-based  International Potato Center (CIP) has one idea that’s half crazy, half stupid to meet this end: grow potatoes on Mars just like Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, did in the film “The Martian” by Ridley Scott.

Watney with his beloved potato crop on Mars. Credit: 20th Century Fox

Watney with his beloved potato crop on Mars. Credit: 20th Century Fox

In the movie, Watney is a botanist part of a manned NASA expedition to Mars. A storm surprises the crew and is forced to make an emergency takeoff from Mars. In the midst of confusion, Watney – who was incapacitated by the storm – is thought dead and left behind. When he wakes up, Watney is in for surprise. He’s the only Martian and possibly the only living thing on an entire planet. Out of supplies and bored, Watney does whatever any botanist in his situation would: grow potatoes and start a video blog.

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Back in real life, NASA has partnered with the CIP with the intended goal of ultimately growing potatoes on Mars under a controlled dome. Why? Because potatoes are freaking resilient and nutritious. These are excellent source of vitamin C, iron, and zinc, they contain critical micronutrients.  “How better to learn about climate change than by growing crops on a planet that died two billion years ago?” said Joel Ranck, CIP Head of Communications. “We need people to understand that if we can grow potatoes in extreme conditions like those on Mars, we can save lives on Earth.”

For now, the team plans on growing potatoes in a simulated Mars environment here on Earth. They’ll use soil from  Pampas de La Joya Desert in Peru (very similar to that found on Mars) and replicate atmospheric conditions on Mars, which is comprised of 95% carbon dioxide. According to the researchers the jump in CO2 should provide yields two to four times that of a regular grain crop under normal Earth conditions. If this experiment proves successful, then they might get the green light to perform the first ever extraterrestrial farming, on the red planet.

“The idea of growing food for human colonies in space could be a reality very soon.” said Chris McKay, planetary scientist of the NASA Ames research centre.

Will humans or robots start farming potatoes on Mars anytime soon? My guess is no, because there’s no reason to – not for the same reasons evoked by NASA or CIP, at least. If you’re growing potatoes on Mars and these actually are edible, then you still need to perform additional tests here on Earth. I frankly can’t see any point in farming radioactive potatoes and spending hundreds of millions at least in the process, when you can do it very well here on Earth.  Considering the whole project is led by  Will Rust, the Creative Director of Memac Ogilvy Dubai aka an advertising guy, this whole project stinks of a publicity stunt. Well, kudos. Raising awareness on malnutrition and the perils posed by climate change to the global food supply is an important mission. Riding a publicity wave around a Hollywood blockbuster might not be the best course of action, though. What happens two years from now when nobody remembers this movie and NASA asks for funding to grow ‘taters on a wasteland 54.6 million kilometers away?