China / Society

China grows vegetables at Antarctic station

(Xinhua) Updated: 2016-02-29 19:36

NANCHANG -- Growing vegetables in the South Pole may sound as crazy as attempting to grow potatoes on Mars, as recently seen in "The Martian."

In one of China's Antarctic research stations, however, researchers have done just that.

"In 'The Martian' Mark Watney is a botanist, but I am a surgeon. I am more comfortable with scalpels than spades," joked Wang Zheng, 41, an orthopedist who has just returned from duty at Zhongshan, one of China's Antarctic research stations.

During his year of service, in addition to being the medic for the research team, Wang was tasked with exploring the feasibility of growing fresh vegetables.

To grow plants in the Antarctic's extreme conditions, a specialized hydroponics system was developed by a Shanghai-based polar research center.

"The system includes a nutrient-rich solution that helps us to germinate a lettuce seed in three days, and one month later fresh lettuce can be harvested once a week," said Wang.

Previously, teams based at China's four Antarctic research stations -- Taishan, Great Wall, Zhongshan and Kunlun -- had to solely rely on food deliveries by China icebreaker "Xuelong", or Snow Dragon. A one-way trip takes 75 days and covers over 18,000 nautical miles.

"Xuelong does the food-supply run once a year. While meat can be easily frozen, vegetables and fruit do not travel so well," said Yu Wanxian, who is a guest professor with the China Polar Research Center.

Yu, who has worked with China's South Pole research programs for over a decade, said life in the stations was hard, and, previously, the only vegetables the teams could eat were dehydrated.

"Living in an extreme environment at double-digit temperatures below zero, the desire for green vegetables is not just a physical instinct, but also spiritual," said Yu, who was the lead author of guidelines on nutrition and food supply for Antarctic expeditions, which was published in 2014.

Yu said the vegetable nursery at Zhongshan Station had catapulted China to the forefront of polar research, as it ensures researchers can live a healthy lifestyle in the extreme environment.

China has approved a budget of 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) to expand the nursery at Zhongshan to provide enough fruit and vegetables for researchers at all four Antarctic stations.

Wang Zheng said he tried various plants during his tenure to see which would yield the best harvests. Lettuce, cucumber, tomato and Chinese cabbage all flourished. Chili, gombo and water melon were not so successful.

"Despite my success, the supply is still limited. We often joked that the best gift in the South Pole is a fresh cucumber," said Wang.

The fresh vegetables have proved popular, even with other researchers based in Antarctica. Foreign teams are always happy to accept an invitation to dinner at the Chinese station, he said.

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