This is, perhaps, only tangentially related to writing. But it is something that slots neatly into the genre that many of us write when you consider that a lot of science fiction never discusses just how we’re going to feed all those people in space. Food production is going in interesting directions at this point in our technological development. Vat meat seems to be getting near the point of practical mass production for the reasonable cost that, if not the general public, the sector that considers themselves constantly in danger from their food, and are willing to pay up to 200% more for the placebo effect of feeling their food is safer (even if the data in no way backs those claims about Organic foods). Yes, you can raise a vat of algae and call it food in space. In theory, at least.

I had occasion to explain polyculture to a young man recently. We’d been talking gardening as he’d commented on the shirt I was wearing (the daughter-things gave it to me for Mother’s Day: Gardening comes in handy when it’s time to hide the evidence) and that drifted to his interest in hydroponics. I asked him if he’d considered polyculture and he looked confused, so I explained. It’s hydroponics, still. That is, the plants are grown in water. However, the poly comes in through the use of fish, or other aquatic creatures, in the water for protein production. You get your vegetables, which are important for some nutrients and fibers, and you get your protein and fats through the growth of the fish, prawns, or snails in the water. On top of that, you have the plants filtering the nitrogenous waste of the fish out of the water, allowing for constant circulation without having to treat the water.

It sounds, on paper, like a flawless system. Any of us reading this who have not attempted it, might think ‘aha! Look at all the inherent problems that could go wrong and my hero would have to fix!’ Which is indeed the case. When I worked on the tiny permaculture farm with my Dad, we set up a polyculture system in the high tunnel. On a budget. In an area geographically where it hadn’t really been done before. Dad was using a concept from a farm in Hawaii, which is radically different environmentally from New England. The results were… interesting. In the sense of you never knew when you woke up if there’d have been a leak the night before and you’d have to be slopping around trying to fix it and rescue fish.

And we were based on dirt. In a space ship/station environment? A large leak could be a disaster. In that environment, however, I’m going to cede that they would have better lining material than spliced EPDM, and maybe the leaks could be minimal. On the other hand? It’s a delicate system. If you have too many ‘fish’ (the Hawaiian polyculture was using prawns, and getting ten inch long prawns to eat out of it. I may have drooled a little over that idea) their waste will overwhelm the system and poison them. Or if the fish to plant proportion is off kilter. If the fish are allowed access to the plant roots, they will graze on them and kill them. If the temperatures are not ideal…

Which is why we were planning on scaling up to catfish (from feeder goldfish where we started), rather than prawns (sad sigh) or tilapia, because they can’t survive the ground temps of New England. And won’t reproduce, which is another problem with a space-based system. You need to consider genetics and makin’ babies in a species that doesn’t work at all like a mammalian process. Fish spawn, prawns use (I think, some of them vary) spermatophore plugs they pop into the proper location on the female, which she then uses as needed while producing eggs. It’s all very external. And you can’t have, say, salmon, that have very specific spawning conditions, unless you are willing to recreate those in space. Any of you who are aware of the fame of the Scottish salmon fishing, or the Alaskan spawn runs, might have a glimmer of what’s involved there. A lot of moving water, fast moving water, on a station or ship. Um. Let’s just say I had a mental image of crazy people – rich ones! – insisting on building that, and their groundskeepers tearing their hair out.

It’s a funny thought. But the reality is, we have to figure out how to produce fresh food, reliably, or colonization of space is simply not going to be feasible. Meat bioreactors require care, as does algae, as do the polyculture systems I’ve given you a thumbnail description of. Ideally, you’d want multiply redundant systems for food production, with complete seals in between them, in case of infection (in plants, they are called viroids, not viruses, but they react the same in virulence and in some cases in deadliness). Fungus in a moist system is unavoidable and treating for it could potentially kill your fish. Balance. Creating a closed ecosystem and then maintaining that balance would be the work of sophisticated engineering and a lot of constant maintenance.

For a story? Boundless opportunity here for conflict, drama, and danger. Who knew gardening was so fraught?

17 thoughts on “PolyCulture

  1. From a hard science perspective, an absurdly rich crazy person trying to build salmon breeding capacity on a round habitat that spins for gravity sounds like an interesting physics and engineering problem.

    You’d have also have to explain why someone so insane still has control of their money, and can get engineers to listen to them. I guess one could posit some groups of engineers lead by somewhat insane chief engineers who each think that the project sounds like a cost effective way to fund developing some tech they have a market for. Lotta economic world building needed, and then there is the research to understand what might be plausible in terms of questions that might still be open, and worth researching. Hmm.

    Thank you. These biological columns are way out of my natural comfort zone, and bring my attention to things I wouldn’t think about otherwise.

    I think may owe all y’all here for broadening my horizons.

  2. Somewhat on topic, my husband mentioned hearing something about folks thinking of clone-making mammoth meat, via the vat grown meat process.

    Polyculture was one of the ways I was considering limited landmass/population on some idle thoughts I had,and it’s fascinating to read about. I thought briefly on setting up one as an experiment but ah well. Rentals.

  3. In some parts of China, a version of that involved mulberry trees, carp, and rice. People grew wet rice in very deep paddies, surrounded by mulberry trees. After a few seasons, they added carp and stopped the rice. The carp ate the trash from the mulberry trees, and the mulberry leaves fed silkworms. The money from the silk went to buying rice, and the dirt from the carp ponds was added to the banks to fertilize the mulberry trees. The system lasted as long as the rice supply outside of the region was sufficient, and as long as silk sold well.

  4. Aquaponics! And related cousins agroforestry, and silvopasture… hmm. For those who’d rather fantasy than SF, it’d be interesting to address the challenge of, say, trying to do salmon on a floating island. 😉

      1. The problem being pulling that off when most people are expecting fantasy setting = charging monster armies. Kind of hard to jiggle a complex magical system when you’re getting overrun by orcs.

  5. And rats. Don’t forget the rats. You’re *gonna* have rats.

    My mostly-carnivorous nonhumans are looking at you funny, and wondering why anyone would eat gunk from algae and fish poop when there are perfectly good food exports from any agricultural planet, and absent that, we’ll land and hunt for ourselves. Then again, they cheated; they’ve had FTL from the gitgo, having acquired (and since upgraded) it from a now-extinct species shortly after they, were, um, turned into two-leggers. What they use as ‘space rations’ is basically pemmican, available from (almost) any dirtside colony.

    My other nonhumans, who are essentially an obligate parasite (they won’t eat dead things at all, and live things must have hair to be considered ‘food’), are shuddering in horror and asking if we could please just have a live rat? They solved the problem a bit differently; their FTL ships (also, um, inherited, from the same source) are slow, but asteroid-sized; they simply raid passing planets for any hairy critters big enough to carry off, and stash ’em in stasis.

    This occasionally gets both species into fixes where there’s nothing to eat. Also makes for ‘excitement’ when their paths cross.

  6. Wealthy ship owners, hmm… What if the ship -is- the owner?

    “You are meant to live with me, by the Gods’ will,” said Erwin. “How fortunate am I, Miss Penelope? The wretched apprentice necromancer who hid from death in the cracks of walls.”

    Guruh’s wolfish ears lifted at that. “Perhaps being sworn to me is a slight improvement for you, Mouse,” she said, poking him with a black claw. “Now all you have to worry about is my uncertain temper.”

    “I never worry about that,” he said, poking her back. “It is the snoring that concerns me. Also the chasing rabbits in your sleep, clashing your teeth in the night, and stealing the blanket. These are my troubles now, great oaf!”

    Her ears went cockeyed with surprise. “I do not snore!” she objected.

    “You certainly do,” returned Erwin with a smug grin. “Also, you snuffle. Then there is the grumbling, the groaning, and the wheezing when you lie on your stomach. I have not slept a wink.”

    “A photograph of your expression has been forwarded to Nike,” said Penelope with a perfectly straight face. “She reports that Alice has stopped shouting epithets at the Dark Ones and is now laughing helplessly.”

    “You are a most impertinent girl,” said Guruh, her ears going back.

    “So it seems,” said Penelope, struggling to keep her face straight. “I must report another photograph has been forwarded. Nike now fears for Alice’s health, lest she break a rib from laughing.”

    “I require evidence of that,” said Erwin. Penelope rewarded him with a picture of Alice laughing so hard that her nose was running. “Behold, mighty Guruh! Vengeance is thine.”

    “I can see we will get no work from any of you this day,” said Guruh. “Pray tell me, Miss Penelope, when will this contraption arrive at your ship of the void, that our revels may begin? Where are the roasting pig and the ale barrel? Will there be dancing and music?”

    “I say, that is a splendid idea,” exclaimed Penelope. “A party, in space, while the Dark Ones chase us. Excellent! I shall see to it straight away.”
    “That was meant to be a sour jest,” said Guruh. “We should be donning armor and sharpening our blades.”

    “My blades are the lightning bolts of Zeus,” replied Penelope haughtily. “They are always sharp. Having a party is the perfect assault on the Dark Ones. I am making a social chassis for myself so that I may attend properly. I would be honored to sit and have Satori with you both. We will give the demons a sunburn.”

    “Will there be a suckling pig?” asked Guruh with a sly narrowing of her eyes.

    “On a space craft? Now you are being silly,” said Penelope tartly.

    “It’s not a revel without a suckling pig,” said Guruh straight-faced. Two could play the jesting game. “Roasting on an open fire.”

    “I will contrive,” said Penelope. “Two more minutes until it is safe to move, Erwin and Guruh. I will have a spider take you down to the accommodations prepared for you. Please excuse me, I must speak to Charlotte and Nammu about pork recipes.” Her image vanished, leaving the light sculpture again.

    “I’ve not seen suckling pig since they took me from the village,” sighed Erwin, “it would be wonderful. But places such as this vessel do not lend themselves to fire pits. Nike told me the very air must be carried in great metal jars. Outside, all is empty blackness that goes on forever. The stars and moon are but tiny specks, flying through the darkness. You are being very bad, Guruh.”

    “One good jest deserves another,” said Guruh with a sly flip of her ears. “Mayhap this project will keep our sprightly Miss Penelope too busy to think up more japery to play on me.”

    “How old are you?” demanded Erwin in sudden suspicion. “Sometimes in your voice, I can hear my grandmother telling me off.”

    “Far older than your grandma, Mousey,” she growled at him playfully and held his arm tighter. “Hoary, grizzled and green with moss am I.”

    “But not so bad, for all of that,” said Erwin, snuggling up to her. “I only wondered.”

    “I am a wee sprout next to ancient Nammu, Mouse,” avowed Guruh. “When I grow up I want to be like her. Beautiful and bright.”

    “I’ll be happy just to grow up,” said Erwin. “Things are looking up though, are they not? May we win through?”

    “If these children cease their larking about,” said Guruh grumpily. “A party, forsooth, as the enemy rallies his forces.”

    “Yes, Grandma!” said Erwin. “I’ll make sure you don’t get drunk and fall in the ale barrel.”

  7. When I was a kid growing up in SW Missouri, I remember hearing stories about Bull Shoals lake and the town that was flooded out to make it.

    I can envision a future food-poor State erecting dams across the Missouri and Merrimack rivers, for example, to transform low lying economically depressed areas into artificial lakes for factory fish farming. I think that would make an awesome setting for something cyberpunk, with redneck squatters building hidden airtight shelters from scrap in the flooded out ruins of their towns.

    Kind of Waterworld meets Deliverance. (Come to think of it, Deliverance was set in area set to be flooded out to make an artificial lake, as I recall.)

  8. Let’s say you have some sort of big spinning round thing (Oneil, Stanford, whatever) with lots of open space and actual dirt. What will the landscaping around the houses look like?
    To start, probably a lot of edible stuff- herbs & veggies for the gardens, fruit trees, and so on. Fresh food would be fairly spendy, and you never know.
    It could be that the growing of food becomes kind of a difference marker between the old respectable settlers, and the nouveau riche who grow ornamentals for conspicuous consumption.

    1. Would trees work? There wouldn’t be much depth to the soil, but the taller the tree, the less it weighs at the top. What if one grew past the center? It would suck to have the “neighbor’s” tree fall out of the sky. Even worse (and probably more likely) to have it bouncing around with the root ball stomping on things. Maybe no tall trees.

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