Saturday, April 28, 2012

Part 4: Galactic Farming Practices

Asteroid Farming, Ady age 7
The grass is getting greener and my allergies are dying down, so that means its time to plant the crops.  I thought since spring had sprung I would discuss the practice of farming and how it will evolve as we spread our metaphorical wings toward the galactic empire in space.  Bearing in mind that what I propose here is only near future predictions and doesn't even touch on the future future of farming that will come after that.  The two types of crops that humans mass produce for consumption are plants and animals, and to a lesser degree fungus, bacteria, and anything else our omnivorous stomachs will handle; including all sorts of chemical non-foods like margarine, Twinkies, and Viagra.  Food production is a trillion dollar industry; namely because every single human is addicted to it.  It's hard to stop eating; I tried it a couple of times (for a few hours.... while sleeping) and I really didn't like it ( I had to break the fast in the morning). Indeed, obesity has been called an epidemic in many parts of the Earth, but hopefully some of the future crop production that I will discuss below will stop all of that, by making food into a bland nutritious gruel that no one would eat for fun.

  The Transductionist's Intergalactic Survival Guide, Part 4: Galactic Farming Practices

The practice of farming on Earth is older than written human history, but like most things that human's do, the gradual changes to farming practice that account for the first 10,000 years of recorded farming have given way to technological advances brought about by our understanding of biological systems and the world at large.  A brief look at the history of machinery and technology involved in farming will show that as late as the 19th century humans were predominantly still using crude plows and animal labor to till the fields.  Which means that radical changes in farming were a product of the 20th century and undoubtedly due to an increase in human population.  The impetus for such advances could be suggested to coincide with a greater need for efficient farming due to a greater number of mouths to feed.  While this may be in part true, it is still more likely that it was due to the culmination of human knowledge that has lead to all the other great advances of the 20th century and which the Futurist Ray Kurzweil calls the law of accelerated returns (I wrote about this idea more in my Training for our Future post).  The gist of which is that as we innovate, we have more time to innovate, i.e. we have more people with less to do.  In sum, the advancements in farming practices noticed in the 20th century on Earth are due to expansion of the human population, a need to feed more with less, and the law of accelerated returns.  Furthermore, the advancements we have seen in agriculture and livestock farming in the 20th century are a drop in the proverbial bucket to what we will see in the 21st century.  And, a whole heck of a lot of this technology will be beneficial for farming in space.

You might ask; how can farming on Earth prepare us for farming in space?  The simple answer is that everything we do on Earth prepares us for living in space.  Several prominent rich men have suggested for example that we mine asteroids for their resources, mostly for there precious metals such as gold and platinum using methods that were of course refined here on Earth, but other important minerals are found on asteroids, such as magnesium and sulfides, which, as a simple look at a bag of fertilizer or gardening handbook will tell you, are important for the growth and development of plants. Nitrogen, one of the most important components in plant reproduction and protein synthesis, has been found in gas clouds in space and is the primary component of the atmosphere of Neptune's moon Triton (and Earth's).  Likewise, phosphorous, another element important in plant and animal development is abundant on meteors and comets.   Even in the distant future these minerals will be necessary for plant development, although they may need to be modified from the source.   It would be wise for any mining in space to redistribute these minerals for use in extraterrestrial agriculture, as acquiring them from Earth would be a costly endeavor.  In truth, basic gardening practices followed on Earth can be followed in space as long as you can find all the ingredients to make your own soil (and air and water of course).  That being said, you may not need soil to grow crops in space; plenty of people use hydroponics and aquaponics on Earth and it seems like another technical advance that could be easily adapted to spaceship application. 

Seeds are Great in Space

I have suggested that all of the resources are available in space for the growing of crops.  However, this is really a loose interpretation of the definition of space, which to most Earth bound (bound to Earth not bound for Earth) individuals might describe as everything beyond our atmosphere.  But planets, moons, and asteroids should not really be defined as outer space.  They are indeed other places that may provide resources or protection from the vacuum of space.  They are our destinations in space.  They are where we will sow the seeds of future humans; literally.  While a good stopgap would be to build a ship on the scale of a luxury cruise liner (except bigger, with massive cargo bays, life support systems, and predominantly indoor pools), in the long run we are looking for an inhabitable mass of rock with good mineral resources to call  home.  In either case the cost of transport would dictate that instead of watermelons we bring the seeds of watermelons out of Earth's gravity well.   Plants have been grown from seeds in space, some of which have been transgenically altered to resist the effects of microgravity on their growth signalling.  These type of science experiments in space, conducted by NASA and other space organizations have provided the metaphorical seeds for larger scale growth and production operations that would be necessary for sustained colonization in space.  Likewise a cargo of diverse plant species should be sent on any mission to colonize another planet, not just for food production and gardening, but for horticulture and botany as well. 

What will Space Farming look Like?

Growing plants and animals is a time consuming and inefficient process.  Improvements in practice have increased efficiency immensely on the planet Earth due primarily to the three reasons I mentioned earlier in this post: expansion of the human population, a need to feed more with less, and the law of accelerated returns.  However growing crops on our long journeys through space will have to be more efficient still.  Anyone who has tried to grow a small garden, or raise chickens for eggs, will know how hard it would be to feed even a small family on the produce produced by these inefficient methods.  And farming is often made efficient due to the large scale of operations.  Scale may not be an option on interstellar transport vessels and it is therefore vital that new methods of food production be used to make it more economical and efficient.  It is therefore wise to assume that farming in the future of space will look a lot more like a laboratory or factory than the traditional industrial farms of today.  Today a practice called factory farming is actually just an industrialized way of growing a large volume of livestock in a small place.  Factory farming puts most of the food we eat on the table but it has been criticized for its disregard for animal welfare and overuse of pharmaceuticals to prevent the spread of disease.  It has however, been a step up in the practice of food production, but it is only a step.  Food production of the future will be conducted in rigorously controlled environments in order to maximize output and minimize loss.

Mass Slurry Production

The next step in food production technology takes us away from some of the concerns about animal welfare, but opens up a whole new can of SPAM.  The next generation of human children may be raised on meat grown in a vat or bio-reactor.  Several techniques have been developed what will convert stem or precursor cells into muscle or meat cells; something that has been referred to as smeat.  Here is a journal article describing how to go about converting a stem cell type into muscle tissue.  Though this example uses human cells (because these techniques also have pertinence to medical science as well), I suggest you use bovine, porcine, or poultry cells to grow your meat (unless your into that kind of thing). Furthermore, plant tissue can be grown in this way as well.  Bio-reactors like the one mentioned above have been used to grow algae and may be modified to grow a whole slurry of concoctions, from bacteria to yeast, and with different nutrients or even pharmaceutical agents added.  If this doesn't sound that appetizing, just add some salt or cumin.  Or as will probably be the case, augment your slurry diet with some good old fashion pork and beans. These innovations in farming practices will make living in space more efficient and economical, but again will be just another stopgap for the more impressive techniques of the future future. 

There are other posts in this series, see them here:  12345

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