UAE candidates for Mars mission could soon taste-test Red Planet crops

Monitoring heavy metal levels in Martian soil to ensure that food grown in it is safe to eat will be crucial on the Mars mission, nutritionists say.

An artist’s impression of what the Mars One settlement on the Red Planet might look like. Courtesy Bryan Versteeg / Mars One
Powered by automated translation

DUBAI // “Martian food” will soon be on the menu for potential astronauts, including two from the UAE, who are in the race to travel to the Red Planet in 2026.

As part of the Mars One colony project, scientists from Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands were able to grow food in Martian-like soil that is safe for humans to eat.

Radishes, peas, rye and tomatoes were among the 10 crops the experiment was able to yield without containing dangerous levels of heavy metals present on Mars, such as aluminium, iron, cadmium zinc and lead. If the level of heavy metals in the soil is too high, crops become poisonous.

“These results are very promising,” said senior ecologist Dr Wieger Wamelink. “We can ­actually eat the radishes, peas, rye and tomatoes and I am very curious what they will taste like.”

It will cost about €25,000 (Dh102,278) to test the remaining six crops, including potatoes. Project participants will be first to eat the “Martian vegetables”.

“We have to be aware that some plants take up heavy metals and [although] they may look nice, they will be inedible because they will be toxic,” said Mikolaj Zielinski, a Polish astronaut candidate representing the UAE.

“So we have to learn how to grow and add nutrition extracts to Martian soil.

“Growing, preparing, monitoring and making sure it’ll be safe is what will be challenging, and that’s more exciting.”

Nutritionists said that checking the nutrient content of food and water and monitoring levels of heavy metals in the soil would be vital on the mission, during which astronauts will suffer a ­decrease in muscle mass and bone density.

“The biggest danger is heavy metal contamination through crop harvesting, which is so far under control,” said Stephanie Nammar, an independent clinical dietician and nutritionist, who founded the nutrition website in Dubai.

“Other risks might be the water quality and the nutrient content of Martian food, which should be equal to normal foods in vitamins and minerals. Exercise and nutrition are the best countermeasures to adjust to life under gravity on the Mars surface.” Gravity on the Red Planet is less than 40 per cent of that on Earth.

She said aquaponics – a system in which plants are fed on fish waste – could be a solution to heavy metal poisoning because plants would be grown in water rather than soil.

Heavy metals are “known to induce organ damage, even at lower levels of exposure,” Ms Nammar said. “They are classified as human carcinogens according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. It is very hard to get rid of heavy metals. Once they reach the toxic level, there is no turning back.”

Although the human body is constantly exposed to different levels of heavy metals from the environment, it has a built-in detoxification system that helps us to flush them out, and limiting exposure is key.

“They need to make sure that their immune system and detoxification systems are working at their best so in case they are exposed, they can clean it out efficiently,” said Caroline Kanaan, a nutritionist at Child Early Intervention Medical Centre in Dubai.

The right balance of minerals in the soil to decrease the risk of toxicity was an issue to watch, she said.

“Selenium is a mineral that should be considered [essential] to have in sufficient amounts,” she said. “On Earth, there are already some widespread selenium deficiencies in the soil that may be contributing to health problems. It would be important to have a standard for the minimum amount of minerals in the food in addition to the maximum.”

Another challenge is that the four crops grown so far lack protein.

“Additional legumes and grains such as chickpeas and beans must be added to the diet, along with food containing probiotics like yoghurt,” Ms Nammar said.

“Some studies show that friendly gut bacteria found in probiotics cleanse the body of heavy metals. Meat is hard to have on Mars because it involves a lot of space, food source and energy.

“But chicken is a better option, because they are easier to handle. A healthy diet consists of having proteins, carbohydrates, fats and fibres.”