Can space greenhouses solve the problem of hunger on Earth?

Could food grown in space greenhouses save us here on Earth? Taking into account global climate change and our destructive activities on the planet, the area of ​​fertile land is decreasing every year. At the same time, the population of our planet is only growing, and in the future this may lead to a food disaster.

Commercial space services company Nanoracks plans to use orbiting greenhouses to create super-resilient crops that will thrive in the harshest conditions on Earth and help stave off the looming food crisis caused by climate change, the company announced in late 2020.

Nanoracks, based in Houston, Texas, has signed a contract with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) to open a Space Agriculture Research Center in the United Arab Emirates that will study sustainable crops, launch them into space and subsequently test the ability of crops to grow in arid and other harsh conditions on our planet.

According to Nanoracks CEO and co-founder Jeffrey Manber, this work is based on decades of research showing that new mutations in plant DNA can arise in harsh space conditions, which, through selective breeding, can then lead to new varieties that can thrive even in challenging environments. conditions on Earth.

Airlock Bishop, which plans to start experimenting with seeds.

The idea of ​​harshly exposing seeds is far from new – back in the 1920s, scientists irradiated them with radiation and poisoned them with chemicals to induce mutations that could be beneficial. At the moment, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, more than 2,500 mutagenized crops have been officially approved and grown.

Space in this case offers even more interesting conditions, such as microgravity, low levels of geomagnetic interference and cosmic rays – streams of high-energy particles moving at a speed close to the speed of light. Attempts to grow plants in space have been made since the 1960s in the United States and Russia, and more than one “garden bed” has already visited the ISS.

The advantage of this mutagenesis is that it is unrealistic to predict the end result. So, in 2016, the Chinese satellite “Shijian-10” was launched with pepper seeds: a team of scientists tried to create a new variety with stronger resistance to wind and disease. The result was completely different: some of the plants grown from the “space” seeds lost the thorns on the stems. In theory, this allows you to automate the harvest of peppers, thereby increasing productivity.

“Over the years, many articlesshowing specific cases when in harsh conditions [космоса] some interesting plant species are emerging that can grow well even in desert conditions, ”Manber said. “These plants grow in space, either through genetic changes, radiation, lack of gravity, or a combination of all of these factors.”

“Space” vegetables.

Since the 1990s, China has developed and approved more than 200 cosmic mutation varieties for agricultural use, according to Professor Liu Liuxiang of the Crop Institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. In fact, the second most popular wheat variety currently grown in China, called Luyuan 502, was developed through space-based breeding.

“By sending seeds and other plant material into space on reentry satellites or manned space flights, we have created new varieties of different crops, including vegetables, wheat, corn and soybeans,” Liu said. “Through DNA mutations in space and long selective breeding, we have created varieties that have higher yields, better nutritional profiles and disease resistance, and require less water or tolerate higher temperatures.”

China, Liu added, is investing heavily in a variety of plant breeding technologies to feed its nearly 1.4 billion people in the face of climate change.

The Arab Emirates, which Manber said now imports nearly 90 percent of the food the country needs, is pushing for crop production in space for similar reasons. Due to the fact that 80 percent of the country is desert and there is a general shortage of freshwater resources, only about 5 percent of the UAE is currently being farmed, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Plants have been growing on the ISS for a long time, but the goal is different – to check how they will feel in space.

“Research into food production in extreme space conditions could be key to expanding our ability to grow plants in desert and arid climates,” said an ADIO spokesman. “This is why we support Nanoracks as they explore agricultural innovations in space that could be used in the future for food production in extreme climates on Earth.”

The StarLab Space Agriculture Center, which ADIO will create with Nanoracks, aims to study and develop new types of bacteria, microbes, biofilms and plants that will subsequently be sent into space on a separate satellite, either to the International Space Station, or through other collaborative projects. which Nanoracks plans to develop.

“We hope that by the end of 2021 we will be able to launch our first biological project from StarLab on the ISS,” Manber said. “We are planning to install a small greenhouse in our Bishop airlock and use it as a test bed, and then perhaps move to a self-contained orbital greenhouse over the next five years.”

Manber added that while researchers around the world are looking for ways to grow food in space for astronauts on the Moon and Mars, the StarLab research project is quite unique as it seeks to use space for the benefit of those on Earth.

In such capsules, the seeds are sent to the ISS.

“The coronavirus and climate change have really opened our eyes to the fragility of food security in both developing and developed countries,” Manber said. “We believe that there is a research path in which space can be one of the possible solutions to how we can cope with Earth’s climate change.”

The StarLab Space Agriculture Center is also developing robotic and automated systems for maintaining greenhouses in space, which can also be used to improve farming efficiency, Manber added.

But, of course, you need to understand that reality is far from fiction, and the chance of getting a safe and beneficial mutation is extremely low. “Only a tiny fraction of space-exposed seeds will have mutations, and not all of them will produce the desired characteristics,” Liu said. As a result, sending seeds into space is just the beginning of a new strain. The bulk of the research focuses on growing returned seeds in various test fields over several generations to produce a crop that can reliably demonstrate the desired qualities.

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