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It is very likely that within the next fifteen years, humans will visit Mars. But the trip will take nine months total, one way. So, before any people set foot on the Red Planet, it is imperative to figure out how to feed them. By utilising the ancient farming methods employed by the Mayans, researchers in the Netherlands may have developed a workable strategy for producing vegetables that are high in nutrients. 

Although dehydrated food is now a common sight on space missions, it's not the best way to sustain human nutrition over the long haul. It is not practical to pack enough for a mission to Mars, and it is less nutrient-dense than fresh food. The most cost-effective way to feed people living on Mars is through agriculture, as regular supply missions are not viable. Of course, Mars isn't very friendly to our crops, with an atmosphere that is 100 times thinner than Earth's and that contains more carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and argon.

Scientists at Wageningen University & Research are searching for methods to maximise plant growth by building on previous research. The Mayans used an intercropping-based farming technique hundreds of years ago. This technique is still employed by their descendants today, creating farms that are resistant to disease and drought. In contrast to monocropping, intercropping involves growing different plant species alongside one another on the same land. 

Three distinct crops were compared using both monocropping and intercropping techniques in an approximated version of the dusty regolith soil found on Mars, as well as soil and river sand. For 105 days, peas, carrots, and tomatoes were grown. The high nutrient content of these three vegetables is lost when food becomes dehydrated. Additionally, the researchers thought they would complement one another. Tomatoes give climbing support to peas and shade to heat-sensitive carrots, while peas fix nitrogen in the soil by converting it to ammonia, which plants can use as food. In turn, carrots aid in aerating the soil, which enhances nutrient and water absorption.

Plants were arranged in 60 pots total, in greenhouses resembling those that might be constructed on Mars. The yield and nutrient density of the outcomes were then calculated. Every crop thrived in each of the three types of soil. Particularly successful in the intercropping regolith pot were the tomatoes. Among all the tomato plants in the experiment, they possessed the highest potassium content and a higher biomass. However, the yields from the carrots and peas dropped because they did not enjoy being in the same pot as the tomatoes in the regolith. This could be due to several factors. Because they are referred to as "heavy feeders," tomatoes probably steal nutrients from the carrots and peas.

In addition, Rhizobia was introduced to the pea plots for them to function symbiotically with one another to fix nitrogen. The Rhizobia were unable to thrive in the higher pH regolith, which prevented the peas from converting nitrogen into ammonia for the crops nearby. The results of this study, however, gave researchers hope because they now believe they can modify the regolith to make it more hospitable to intercropped plants. For example, they will be able to increase the regolith's nutrient value by composting the produce's leftover parts after the first harvest. Evidence for the benefits of intercropping to agriculture on Earth was also presented by the study.

A rapidly changing climate is causing farming conditions to change, with some areas seeing a rise in sand. In the river sand iteration, the intercropped plants outperformed the monocropped pots. There is much for many communities on Earth, as well as for astronauts on Mars, to learn from the Mayans. 

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