In our #AskAFuturist series, Rich McEachran asks, “How feasible is it that we’ll be cultivating plants in space on a large scale by 2100? The science is there but the logistics isn’t… yet.” We also look at the idea of a ‘Bar of the Future’ in space.
Future food inventions
Once upon a time, an enquiry dropped into my inbox from our website. Would I be interested in contributing some thoughts about future bars in space to a marketing campaign for Ballantine’s whisky?
There are some obvious examples from fiction that it is hard to get away from: Mos Eisley from Star Wars, and more recently the bar on Knowhere from Guardians of the Galaxy. But thinking practically I can see two very different visions of a future bar in space:
- The Miner’s Arms: a bar for asteroid miners who need a little R&R after a long day.
- The Spaceport Lounge: similar to an airport lounge for travellers going between mines.
Whether or not these bars will serve food remains to be seen. But will there be enough food in the future? Or do we need to consider the alternatives of growing food in space?
Will there be enough food in the future?
When we consider the prospect of growing food in space, Rich is right. We can grow plants in space, albeit it’s not necessarily the best environment to do so without some modification to those plants.
While sunlight is plentiful, space is cold and dry. You’re more likely to be bathed in radiation than water. And there’s no gravity. Plants, like us, did not evolve to live and thrive in these conditions. But we can overcome them. Research is ongoing about how we best grow plants in this artificial environment, just as it is on Earth. But the principle is well proven.
Future food industry: feeding the population
With climate disruption threatening agriculture around the world, it’s worth asking the question of whether we could grow food in space to feed Earth’s population. Sadly, the answer is a fairly quick ‘no’.
While the logistical problems that Rich refers to are easier going from space to Earth than vice versa, the particular challenges of growing in space mean that it’s probably not a viable location for growing food to feed the planet. Quite apart from anything else there is the issue of water.
Plants need water to grow, in one form or another. We can bring water up from Earth but it is heavy and dense, and right now the cost per kilogram of payload is around £2200. That’s gonna be some expensive lettuce.
We can mine ice from asteroids or from the Moon to water our plants, but even this is far from cheap when compared to water literally falling from the sky onto your crops. It might be viable to support a few astronauts. It’s not viable for feeding the general population.
What’s next for the future of food industry?
While the notion of bars in space seems entirely possible, the concept of growing plants in space simply isn’t sustainable, yet. For now. we should focus on planet Earth – and look forward to kicking back in the Spaceport Lounge as and when.