January 2016
Mars Needs Tubers By Phillip Nolte

Though we have seen a great deal of science come down the pike in the potato world over the decades and we have seen a lot of science fiction movies come out during the same time period, one thing we haven’t seen much of is potatoes in the realm of sci-fi.

This unfortunate oversight has recently been corrected. The potato has scored a starring role in the science fiction novel “The Martian” by Andy Weir, which has recently hit the cineplexes in a movie directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon in the role of Mark Watney.

Potatoes? In space? Don’t laugh! Potatoes have been under consideration by NASA as a possible food source for space dwellers and space travelers since the late 1980s.

Ray Wheeler, a NASA plant physiologist, has discussed the work he and his group were performing to investigate the concept of feeding people in space using potatoes at several Potato Association of America meetings.

In “The Martian,” the main character, Mark Watney, becomes stranded on Mars, the result of a freak emergency, and is forced to make do with what he has on hand to survive. The story has a sort of “MacGyver meets Apollo 13” flavor to it throughout, and the unique solutions to the virtual tsunami of problems and puzzles he needs to solve are guaranteed to keep you turning the pages.

Watney discovers some tubers that have been sent along for the astronauts to eat after they arrive on Mars. Watney concludes that his only hope for survival is to plant and grow them for food.

The question is: Could Watney really use these potatoes in the way described in the book? I’m giving that a qualified “maybe,” because there are a few minor problems …

Andy Weir is right on the money when he discusses the virtues of the potato in terms of its nutritional value, land-use efficiency and factors such as yield potential. Where the story seems to fall down somewhat concerns the concept of tuber dormancy. In the potato world, dormancy is a huge issue. Either your potatoes are going to begin to break dormancy and sprout in storage when you don’t want them to or, if you are using them as seed potatoes, you may have difficulty getting them to sprout when you do want them to.

According to the transit times I was able to estimate from studying the book, the tubers would have been stored for at least ten months by the time the expedition got to Mars. Sprout inhibitors are commonly required to extend tuber dormancy for periods this long, even if refrigeration is used.

If Watney’s potatoes had been treated with a sprout inhibitor, they would’ve performed dismally as seed tubers. Weir does note in the book that the potatoes had been “refrigerated” during the journey from Earth before Watney tried to get them to grow, so we’ll assume there were no sprout inhibitors­–but 10 months is an awfully long time to store untreated tubers, refrigerated or not.

Later in the book, Watney harvests some of the tubers he has managed to produce and then — here’s where things get a little iffy again — immediately gets them to sprout. Maybe he could pull this off if he was using a variety with an extremely short dormancy period. However, if the potatoes had a short dormancy, we would have experienced even more problems with sprouting and deterioration in the original tubers during the trip out. All in all, I have to give the author a “D” for his handling of potato dormancy issues.

The author redeems himself to some extent later in the story. Due to another near disaster, Watney is forced to freeze-dry the tubers he’s managed to produce. This concept is quite feasible. In fact, the natives of the Andean highlands have been converting tubers to a product called chuño by a sort of natural freeze-drying process for centuries.

If you’re a science fiction fan, you’ll love this book. I was not only vastly entertained by it, but I found myself laughing out loud every few pages at the entries Watney records in his personal log.

A word of warning: “The Martian” does contain a considerable amount of adult language and may not be suitable for younger readers or those who are offended by such things.

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