Alfalfa may have a future on Mars

The benefits of alfalfa as a feedstuff, soil enhancer, and nitrogen contributor are well known here on Earth. Someday, those same benefits may be leveraged on Mars.

While evaluating possible food sources to sustain life on the Red Planet, Iowa State University researchers were investigating the possibility of growing crops such turnips, lettuce, and radishes.

Of course, the soil on Mars is much different than the majority of our native soils on Earth. A Mars’ soil is mostly derived from past volcanic activity, which makes it basaltic in composition. It is salty but has also been found to contain low concentrations of most of the macro and micro elements we are familiar with on Earth. It also has poor water-holding capacity due to absence of organic carbon.”

In the greenhouse study, a Mars-like soil was simulated from ground basaltic rocks. Turnips were planted in the basaltic soil or in a garden soil, which was used as a control treatment. As would be expected, “. . . the growth of turnip plants in the basaltic Mars-like soil was unhealthy as compared to that grown in garden soil,” the researchers noted. The addition of liquid fertilizer to the basaltic soil significantly improved turnip growth.

The researchers also investigated the possibility of using one plant species to provide nutrition for the desired edible plant species. It was noted that alfalfa exhibited “robust growth” in the Mars-like soil when fresh water was applied.

Alfalfa was tested to see if it could serve as a nutrient source in the Mars-like soil for growing food crops. The alfalfa was grown on the basaltic Mars soil and harvested. It was then dried and ground into a powder, which was applied to the edible crops’ grown in Mars soil.

The growth of turnip plants increased by 190% in the alfalfa-treated Mars-like soil compared to the untreated soil and produced healthy bulbs. The biomass of radish bulbs improved by 311% and lettuce leaf production jumped 79% when grown in the alfalfa-treated Mars soil.

The photos show the effect of dried and ground alfalfa on the growth of turnip (left) and radish (right) in a basaltic Mars simulant soil.

In their discussion, the researchers stated, “this study signifies that for long-term purposes, it is possible to treat soil and water resources  in place for farming on Mars to sustain human missions and permanent settlements.”

Perhaps . . . just perhaps . . . alfalfa has a future on Mars, but you may want to wait a few years before buying cropland on the Red planet. See full article here.

~adapted from Mike Rankin, Hay and Forage Grower