Merlot is from Mars

Thursday, 18 August, 2005
Leonie Joubert
Imagine strolling between vineyard rows thriving in the rusty red soils of Mars, or sipping that maiden Martian vintage. Since humans have advanced from rudimentary cave dwellers to explorers of space, Leonie Joubert considers whether the next fashionable terroir might, quite literally, be out of this world.
It’s a long shot, by anyone’s estimate, but it’s no longer a science fiction fantasy. There are people at NASA who are seriously considering the most expedient way to make Mars habitable. As planet’s go, it has a lot to offer. Recent images from the Red Planet suggest that water once flowed freely there and that in the low-pressure atmosphere the remaining water is probably trapped in frozen ice caps. The presence of water means it probably supported life and it even has a 24 hour day – although at 687 days per year, that makes the growing season rather long and arduous. The only snag is its atmosphere: the thin layer of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water vapour doesn’t trap heat and warm the planet the way Earth’s atmosphere does so the temperature fluctuates from -120°C to 25°C daily. Several schemes (some rather harebrained) have been proposed, but the most obvious one is to change the atmosphere and build up greenhouse gases to simulate global warming as we’ve done on Earth through burning fossil fuels. A recent NASA report suggests that if a colony were established on Mars and allowed to produce greenhouse gases such as the potent octafluoropropane – a by-product of circuit board production – this could help turn the planet into one on which plants could grow and begin mass production of oxygen. It would take centuries but eventually a warmer, breathable atmosphere might develop. It sounds quite far out, but we’ve shaped our own world radically in the past. Europe in the 1300s was as malaria-riddled as present-day Mozambique. Through cutting back forests, draining swamps and driving out the disease-carrying bug, the people of that continent were able to lay out their patchwork fields of crops and vines in the relative peace that comes with knowing a common mosquito bite isn’t going to be lethal. Thousands of years into our experimentation with agriculture, we’re now thinking of splicing genes to make vines more heat tolerant. We’ll consider scrambling the genetic make-up of yeast to halve fermentation time or to bring out the nose on an unusually shy variety. There’s even a school of thought which argues that global warming is the best thing to happen to agriculture since the green revolution in the 1960s. By warming the world, massive parts of the frozen northern hemisphere will thaw out and make way for agriculture. Even the wine community can look forward to pioneering the first vineyards in parts of Canada that were prohibitively chilly in the recent past. But with our ingenuity comes a flurry of unexpected consequences for which we have had to find additional solutions. The green revolution brought better irrigation techniques and hybridised plants. But a build up of salts in arable soil due to mass irrigation is sterilising farmland globally. Hybridised crops mean subsistence farmers have to generate the coins required in a cash economy to buy their seed each year from multi-national companies when they discover the crops they’ve been incentivise to plant do not generate reproductive seed. And while the north may warm, the southern hemisphere is going to shrivel up with drought. How will Africa feed itself then? Meanwhile we can only guess how the oxidised soils of the Red Planet would show up on the palate of a Martian Merlot. Not to mention the fact that in a world with only a third of Earth’s gravity, the winemaker is likely to be very tall and thin. Leonie Joubert is a freelance science journalist with a special interest in climate and the environment.