Centauri Dreams: C, H, O, N, P and K are required in large quantities and are called macronutrients, Fe is an intermediate case and the rest are called micronutrients, required in minuscule quantities. By Ioannis Kokkinidis
'Carbon is absorbed from the atmosphere in the form of CO2. Hydrogen is absorbed through the roots in the form of water. Oxygen enters through CO2 and H2O, while the rest of the elements are absorbed through the roots dissolved in the liquid solution. A common misconception about plants is that soil is necessary for their growth: it is not. What is necessary is a liquid solution containing the necessary elements to grow. The practice of growing plants in a soil-less medium is known as hydroponics and was the subject of my undergraduate thesis, which I conducted in Portugal as an Erasmus student. The very specific case where instead of a medium the root is suspended in midair, with the solution sprayed to the root, is called aeroponics.
'Hydroponics dates to plant nutrition experiments in the late 19th century. The first major applications appeared during WWII when it was used to grow fresh food by the United States armed forces in the Pacific for garrisons in bare islands that were too isolated for effective resupply. Commercially it was first used in the Netherlands during the 1960’s in greenhouses, where after decades of using the same soil there were too many disease vectors for use. Over the decades it has become a relatively popular method to grow crops in greenhouses, preferably in places that are densely populated and have significant available capital. While all crops can be grown hydroponically, commercially it is limited to high value crops such as vegetables and flowers: Field crops receive free ecosystem services from the environment; in a hydroponic greenhouse we need to provide and/or supplement them artificially.
'Plants convert radiation into biomass through photosynthesis. In lower plants such as blue green algae this biomass is in the form of undifferentiated cells. In higher plants there are differentiated organs such as tubers, fruits, stems and leafs. While algae is consumed whole after treatment, we often consume parts of plants, the specific part depending on the species.
'Furthermore, there is no such thing as a superplant able to provide the entire needs of human nutrition on its own. We will need to grow a mix of species to provide the various needs of the colonists. A major problem though is that we do not know what the actual nutritional needs of the colonists will be. An office worker on Earth needs 2000-2500 calories per day; a manual laborer can easily consume over 5000. We do not know what the effect of lower gravity is in caloric consumption or the relative requirement on each food component. However, there have been various studies proposing crops mixes for future colonies.'
much more here by Dr. Ioannis Kokkinidis, a native of Piraeus, Greece