In the 2015 Matt Damon movie The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name, an astronaut awaiting rescue on Mars subsists for months on potatoes he grows in his habitat.
“I think I read [the book] in three nights,” says Neil Mattson, associate professor at the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University. He says everyone in his field is a big fan.
And no wonder: Mattson and his colleagues have been advancing the field, or lack thereof, of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) for decades—that means farming indoors, whether in a greenhouse or entirely under grow lights. Just like Matt Damon’s character in The Martian, Mark Watney, these researchers and their commercial partners have been perfecting the right mix of nutrients, water, lighting, and environmental controls to grow fruits and vegetables untainted by pesticides, contaminates, or even outside air. It lets urban farmers do more with less real estate by growing up—as in stacking planting containers in a style of CEA known as vertical farming.
Now not only science fiction but reality has caught up with them as commercial ventures take off. Spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, CEA has experienced healthy investment in startups trying to shorten supply chains that stretch miles or even around the world for groceries. This means fresher food for consumers and less food going bad, thereby reducing food waste, which is one of the top contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, according to Project Drawdown.