The fate of manned missions to Mars may depend on a single, lowly radish grown in the Netherlands. On Wednesday, researchers from Wageningen University will take the first bites of the vegetable grown in “Martian” soil.
Over the last three years, ecologist Wieger Wamelink has experimented with growing vegetables in a simulated Martian soil designed by NASA to determine whether or not agriculture could happen in the native dirt of the Red Planet. Not only did he find that food crops successfully germinate in the mineral-heavy soil, he was able to grow ten different crops in the material this past March.
But at that time, Wamelink wasn’t ready to sample his astro-salad. “We had crops and harvested them, tomatoes, rye grains, radish, rocket, cress, but did not taste them yet,” he tells Ria Misra at Gizmodo. “First we have to make sure that it is safe to eat them because of the heavy metals that are present in the soils and may end up in the plants.”
While the plants seemed to grow normally, Wamelink and his colleagues were not certain if they would absorb the high levels of heavy metals including cadmium, copper and lead found in the Martian soil, according to a press release. But recent tests of four of the crops—radishes, peas, rye and tomatoes—showed that they were safe to eat.
The peas and tomatoes had lower levels of some heavy metals than veggies grown in control Earth soils. While the radishes had the highest concentration of heavy metals, Wamelink hypothesizes that these elevated levels may be from remnants of “Martian” soil not properly washed off the vegetable. The research team hopes to test the other six crops, including potatoes, carrots and green beans for heavy metals soon.
Growing edible crops is just one problem future Martian farmers face, however, as Wamelink points out. Astronauts on the planet will have to find a source of water for their crops, add oxygen to their greenhouses and will have to grow their food in domes or underground to protect them from intense solar radiation.
“In principle, there could be another problem, but the chances of that are very low and we would taste it immediately,” Wamelink tells Misra. “Plants may form alkaloids when they are under pressure, in high quantities they could be poisonous to us. We will check on them later, to see if any of them are in the crops, together with vitamins and flavanoids.”
Wamelink, who is supporting much of the research through crowdfunding, hopes to eventually reward some of his supporters with a meal made with his Martian veggies once the produce is deemed safe.