How 100 Years of Antarctic Agriculture Helps Scientists Grow Food

Figuring out how to feed humans in space is an important part of a larger effort to demonstrate the viability of long-term human habitation of alien environments. On May 12, 2022, a team of scientists announced that they had successfully grown plants using lunar soil collected during the Apollo lunar missions. But this isn’t the first time scientists have tried growing plants in soils that don’t normally provide life.

The greenhouse at McMurdo Station in Antarctica is the only source of fresh food in the winter. [Photo: Flickr user Eli Duke]I am a historian of Antarctic science. Growing plants and food in the extreme south of the earth has been an active area of ​​research for over 120 years. These efforts contributed to a better understanding of the many challenges of farming in extreme environments and ultimately led to limited but successful plant breeding in Antarctica. And especially after the 1960s, scientists began to see this research explicitly as a stepping stone to human habitation in space.

This painting shows a room aboard the Antarctic research vessel Discovery, where the first plants were grown with soil from Antarctica. [Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

Growing plants in Antarctica

The earliest attempts to grow plants in Antarctica focused primarily on providing food for explorers.

In 1902, British physician and botanist Reginald Koettlitz became the first person to grow food on Antarctic soils. He collected some soil from McMurdo Sound and used it to grow mustard and cress in boxes under a skylight aboard the expedition ship. The harvest was immediately favorable for the expedition. Koettlitz produced enough that during a scurvy outbreak, the entire crew ate the greens to help prevent their symptoms. This early experiment showed that Antarctic soil could be productive and also pointed to the nutritional benefits of fresh food during polar expeditions.

Early attempts to grow plants directly in Antarctic landscapes were less successful. In 1904, Scottish botanist Robert Rudmose-Brown sent seeds from 22 cold-tolerant Arctic plants to tiny, frigid Laurie Island to see if they would grow. All seeds failed to germinate, which Rudmose-Brown attributed to both environmental conditions and the absence of a biologist to help usher in their growth.

Many other attempts have been made to introduce alien plants into the Antarctic landscape, but in general they have not lasted long. While the soil itself could support some plant life, the harsh environment was not friendly to plant cultivation.

The only way to successfully grow food in the cold environment of Antarctica is in a greenhouse, like this one at McMurdo Station. [Photo: Flickr user Eli Duke]

Modern techniques and emotional benefits

By the 1940s, many countries had begun setting up long-term research stations in Antarctica. Since it was impossible to grow plants outdoors, some people living on these stations took it upon themselves to build greenhouses to provide both food and emotional well-being. But they soon realized that Antarctic soil was too poor quality for most crops except mustard and cress, and usually lost its fertility after a year or two. Beginning in the 1960s, people began to switch to the soilless method of hydroponics, a system where you grow plants with their roots submerged in chemically enhanced water under a combination of artificial and natural light.

Hydroponic systems grow plants without the need for soil. [Photo: Flickr user Eli Duke]By using hydroponic techniques in greenhouses, factory production facilities did not use the Antarctic environment to grow crops at all. Instead, people created artificial conditions.

In 2015, there were at least 43 different facilities in Antarctica where researchers had grown plants at one time or another. While these facilities were useful for scientific experiments, many Antarctic residents valued being able to eat fresh vegetables in the winter and viewed these facilities as having enormous benefits for their psychological well-being. As one researcher put it, they are “warm, bright and full of green life — an environment you miss during the Antarctic winter.”

At the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, researchers have been conducting experiments since 2004 to mimic growing conditions in space. [Photo: Daniel Leussler/Wiki Commons]

Antarctica as an analogue for space

As the permanent human occupation of Antarctica increased in the mid-20th century, humanity also began its ascent into space — and specifically to the moon. Beginning in the 1960s, scientists working for organizations like NASA began to view the hostile, extreme, and alien Antarctica as a useful analogue for space exploration, where countries could test space technologies and protocols, including plant production. That interest continued into the late 20th century, but it was not until the 2000s that space became a primary goal of any Antarctic agricultural research.

In 2004, the National Science Foundation and the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center teamed up to build the South Pole Food Growth Chamber. The project aimed to test the idea of ​​controlled environment farming – a way to maximize plant growth while minimizing resource use. According to the architects, the facility closely mimicked the conditions of a lunar base and provided “an Earth analog for some of the problems that will arise when food production moves to homes in space.” This facility will continue to provide the South Pole Station with supplemental food.

Since the construction of the South Pole Food Growth Chamber, the University of Arizona has partnered with NASA to build a similar prototype lunar greenhouse.

The International Space Station is home to a small vegetable garden that supplies small amounts of food to the crew. [Photo: NASA]

Growing plants in space

When humans spent extended periods of time in space towards the end of the 20th century, astronauts began to use the lessons of a century of vegetation in Antarctica.

In 2014, NASA astronauts installed the vegetable production system aboard the International Space Station to study plant growth in microgravity. The following year they harvested a small crop of lettuce, some of which they ate with balsamic vinegar. Just as Antarctic scientists had argued for years, NASA claimed that the nutritional and psychological value of fresh produce “is a solution to the challenge of lengthy missions to deep space.”

EDEN ISS is the latest experiment designed to mimic a food production facility on the moon and can successfully feed a crew of six. [Photo: DLR/Flickr]Antarctic research plays an important role for space to this day. In 2018, Germany launched a project in Antarctica called EDEN ISS, which focused on plant breeding technologies and their applications in space in a semi-closed system. The plants grow in the air while misters spray chemically enhanced water on their roots. In its first year, EDEN ISS was able to produce enough fresh vegetables to cover a third of the diet for a six-person crew.

As in Antarctic history, the question of how to grow plants is central to any discussion of possible human settlements on the Moon or Mars. People eventually gave up efforts to cultivate the harsh Antarctic landscape for food production and turned to artificial technologies and environments to do so. But after more than a century of practice and the use of state-of-the-art techniques, the food grown in Antarctica has never been able to sustain many people for long. Before sending humans to the Moon or Mars, it might be wise to first prove that a settlement can survive on its own amid the frozen southern plains of the Earth.

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