The Martian, starring Matt Damon, was recently released to a positive response all around the globe. It also received some special commendations from scientists working in space agencies all over the world (which speaks volumes about how the movie portrayed their beloved realm!). The movie is basically the story of a man being deserted by everyone, who trusts in science to come to his rescue. Superb as the movie is, we are going to analyze a particular aspect that they have shown in the movie that raises some very interesting questions.
To start with, if you haven’t seen the movie, you should know that there are going to be some spoilers of the movie in here, so tread carefully!
What’s the Movie All About?
In the movie, the protagonist Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, is an astronaut who travels to Mars along with a crew of 5 members. Complications arise early on and Watney ends up being stranded on the planet. He has to survive until the crew of the next mission arrives to rescue him.
In order to survive, he, being a botanist, grows potatoes on the parched planet under controlled conditions and actually manages to survive for a long time (he also has vitamin supplements through pills, by the way). Yes, he grows potatoes on Mars. He takes the soil and uses his feces as a fertilizer to make it work.
Researchers at NASA and International Potato Center have conducted some experiments. They led to promising results as they were able to grow potatoes in harsh Mars-like conditions. They had to use soil from Peru’s Pampas de la Joya desert. CubeSat, a rocket-launchable box was used to mimic the conditions (temperature, day-and-night cycle, gases and air pressure) They plan on doing multiple rounds of experiments with different types of potatoes. This will help them determine which variety survives the best.
Now, what we want to analyze is whether a person can survive on potatoes alone.
Can you survive on potatoes?
The Good Side
There are a few good things in the favor of a potato-only diet. To start with, potatoes are fairly easy to grow (at least easier than many other plants that would provide as much nutrition). Potatoes produce a decent amount of edible tubers per square foot and pose very few problems in their storage. All of these qualities make potatoes a very good choice for a person who has no hope for a more nutritious diet over a long period of time.
However, a diet containing a large number of potatoes would be criticized by nutritionists, as potatoes contain simple carbohydrates that are converted into simple sugars, leading to an increase in blood sugar levels and obesity. That being said, for a person whose sole motive is to survive on an alien planet, getting a little fatter does not matter too much. Also, potatoes are a great source of Vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, iodine and certain B vitamins. Last, but not least, they offer the most important thing to a person trying to survive – calories.
The Bad Side
Potatoes can help you survive for many months, no doubt about that, but the risks of not having any other nutritional supplements will take its toll eventually. Since there is no vitamin A in potatoes, the person may develop night blindness due to a lack of this crucial vitamin. Potatoes’ protein content is also relatively low, so the person would be prone to diseases like kwashiorkor and marasmus. There are other ailments too, like rickets (due to a deficiency of Vitamin D), bone fractures (due to a lack of calcium), nerve damage (due to a lack of Vitamin E), a weak heart (due to a lack of selenium) and cognitive decline and chronic inflammation (due to a lack of fats).
Use sweet potatoes
All of this proves that no single food can keep a human alive for years, let alone potatoes. However, if you replace potatoes with sweet potatoes, you would be better equipped to ward off some of the ailments mentioned above. Sweet potatoes are just as easy to grow as potatoes, contain almost as many calories and can be eaten raw. On the contrary, regular potatoes cannot be eaten raw.
Therefore, if you are an astronaut and are embarking on a journey to an alien planet, insist that your support team pack a huge amount of sweet potatoes for the trip, or at least plenty of seeds so you can start a space garden when things go wrong!