To live on Mars we're probably going to have to eat bugs

UCF researchers aim to answer, "how do we feed 1 million Martians?"

The Martian Diet, by UCF's Kevin Cannon and Daniel Britt, on top of a mosaic taken by the Mars Curiosity rover of Mount Sharp. (Image: NASA)
The Martian Diet, by UCF's Kevin Cannon and Daniel Britt, on top of a mosaic taken by the Mars Curiosity rover of Mount Sharp. (Image: NASA)

The first million people to live on Mars won't survive solely on vegetarian diets but will also need alternative proteins, including insects, to gain critical calories, according to research by University of Central Florida planetary scientists.

In the paper, Feeding One Million People on Mars, published in New Space, UCF researchers Kevin Cannon and Daniel Britt laid out what it would take to feed a Martian population based on what is known about Martian soil and the equipment needed to grow or make food on the red planet.

How will Martians farm?

Unfortunately for fans of "The Martian," it just isn't sustainable to farm your way to a full crop of potatoes out of Martian soil -- and human feces.

"If you think of the regolith (soil) on Mars it's just fundamentally different than the soil on Earth you grow crops in," Cannon said. "There's no organic matter, there's no bacteria and fungi."

Cannon knows a lot about dirt from other worlds. As the founder of UCF's Exolith Lab he creates Mars, moon and asteroid simulants.

It would take some work to transform Martian dirt into a more Earth-like soil. Because of that, Cannon and Britt say the more favorable method for Martian farming will be hydroponics.

The Vegetable Production System known as 'Veggie' deployed on the International Space Station to produce salad-type crops, in this case red romaine lettuce. The system uses highly efficient, long-lasting and low heat LEDs.

"You have to bring all the trays and pumps and everything with you. You need like a nutrient solution, but it's a lot less risky," Cannon said. "We kind of know how to do that on Earth. You could set that up it'll work on day one."

Impossible burger with a side of cricket protein powder anyone?

Most other life-support system studies assume the first Mars or moon residents will be on a 100% plant-based diet, Cannon said. However, after the research duo looked at eating habits on Earth, that plan just doesn't seem realistic.

"Very, very few people actually eat a 100% plant-based diet, and almost all the people who kind of switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet, go back to eating meat, so it just doesn't seem realistic that you'd be forcing people to eat 100% plant-based diet(s)," Cannon said.

The Impossible Burger, a meatless hamburger alternative.

That's where "clean meat," or cultured meats, and bugs will come in, according to the paper. Cannon and Britt found almost 20 companies around the world currently making cultured meat products. The Beyond Burger or Impossible Burger are examples of alternative meat products that offer the meat-experience without the land and water use required for traditional farming.

[RELATED: Impossible Whopper goes nationwide at Burger King]

But the king crop on Mars will be bugs, according to the paper. More than 2 billion people on Earth consume almost 2,000 species of edible insects. North American and European countries are the odd ones out, Cannon said.

"If you just look at pound for pound, how much land and water and seed you need, things like crickets are way more efficient than growing animal protein," Cannon said.

Before you start imagining a cricket on a stick appetizer, a quick Google search shows food items already being made and sold with cricket protein, including granola bites, protein bars, flour, chocolate and insect burgers.

Cannon and Britt created a website to serve as an "Eat like a Martian" how-to guide that includes all the options already available they think could one day feed people living on the Red Planet.

The ideas from the paper in New Space could also benefit NASA's Artemis program. As the space agency is working toward returning humans to the moon sustainably they will have to feed them.

Currently, astronauts on the space station grow small scale crops using a system called Veggie.

"They really haven't been thinking about how do you actually feed a large population, how do you grow calorie crops and things like that," Cannon said. "What we wanted to do is just kind of take a look at what it would actually take to do that kind of thing."