How scientist Mike Dixon is using space technology to combat food scarcity on Earth

Prof. Mike Dixon, School of Environmental Sciences, is an expert at growing food in places where food has never been grown before. Whether it’s mimicking the harsh environment of Mars or the extreme temperatures of Canada’s Far North and the Middle East, Dixon’s research — which employs cutting-edge LED lighting and space technologies — could hold the answers to complex problems of the future, including climate change, space travel and, perhaps most pressing for humankind, food scarcity.

Why is this research so important?

In Northern Canada, food security is mainly an economic issue. We currently import perishable produce and fly it into remote places at great expense. It’s difficult for people to get fresh food and they can’t grow their own food outside. In the Middle East, they’re projecting the day when they will have to survive without oil. The deserts of Kuwait, where it’s 50 C, and the snow banks of Yellowknife, where it’s -50 C, have equally profound food security issues but the solution is identical: space-related technology.

How are you growing plants in barren places?

We’re using controlled environment technologies to produce food year-round in places where you would never consider sticking a seed in the ground. It’s technology that we’ve developed for growing food in space — the next worse place after Northern Canada to grow food has got to be the surface of the moon or Mars. We’re hoping to put a pilot-scale installation in the Northwest Territories and there’s already a prototype in Kuwait growing vegetables in an otherwise hostile environment. We hope to explore high-value perishable crops like strawberries, sweet peppers, herbs and romaine lettuce, along with medicinal herbs, which have a higher profit margin.

What role does light play in the technology?

A plant is a product of its environment and responds to every environmental variable — carbon dioxide, light, temperature, humidity, nutrients and water. The advent of high-intensity, high-efficiency LEDs gives us the power to fine-tune the environment control. With the colour of the light, you can change the size, shape, taste and colour of a plant. Plants are the ultimate challenge because they’re so sophisticated in their physiological responses to light.

In the film The Martian, Matt Damon’s character grows potatoes on Mars. Could that really happen?

“Yes, the arithmetic was good — previous NASA research supports it. Our work is to fill in the blanks more precisely. For example, looking at how low can you take the pressure in the structure and still have plants providing all the functions of life support, food, oxygen, recycling water and scrubbing carbon dioxide.”

Do you think controlled environment agricultural systems will provide solutions to food security issues?

Absolutely. It will happen as the technology gets deployed on a larger scale and becomes more economically possible. The technology exists, and the interest, initiative and feasibility are obvious. The need is clear. It all depends on money — it’s the only limitation. –DAVID DICENZO