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Space and Food with Allen Herbert.

What are we doing to research food in space? Learn more from commercial space agrifood advocate and astro farmer, Allen Herbert.



Deep Space


What does it take to become a commercial space agrifood advocate? Allen Herbert tells us why he supports commercial food production in space. 

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>> Maria Varmazis: Welcome to "T-Minus Deep Space" from N2K Networks. I'm Maria Varmazis, host of the "T-Minus Space Daily" podcast. And Deep Space includes extended interviews and bonus content for a deeper look into some of the topics that we cover on our daily program.

[ Music ]

So today we're going to be talking about two of my favorite topics, space and food. Research on space and food has mainly been led by governments, but as our guest Allen Herbert will address, food in space is likely to be a commercial endeavor. We started off by asking Allen what he's doing as a commercial space agrifood advocate.

>> Allen Herbert: What I look at right now is, I look at how to work with companies so they can become more commercial dealing with food in space, than companies or organization or people that normally don't deal with space. I think we all in the space community need to know, we're seeing it, but it still has a government part of it. But agriculture and food -- agriculture is commercial around the world, no matter what. Food production is commercial; food delivery is commercial. Food research is commercial. Agriculture research is commercial. Everything dealing with food on earth, mostly, unless it's some other countries, is commercial. And what we have right now, the government is doing a lot of the research, universities, on agrifood production in space, but the bottom line, it's going to be commercial. I got involved in this -- I look back, and even in my family, my great-grandparents were just a -- one inch away from being enslaved. Their parents were enslaved. And so the first thing they did was become farmers, because that made them independent. They could grow their own food. They -- you know, all types of different things. And then as the century -- as time goes on, lot of us left farming to do other things, but the great thing is, my great-grandparents, we still have their land, but nobody is really farming now. And so for me, I really love this -- I have a picture of them, like, of both of them right near their farm, and it's like, here I am in the year 2023, I'm looking at being an astrofarmer. I call myself an astrofarmer.

>> Maria Varmazis: Oh, I'm still --

>> Allen Herbert: But looking at what we're going to do in space, you know, how we're going to be -- how we going to commercialize it? And coming from the type of background I came from, I didn't come from -- even when I worked for a large company, Nanoracks, Voyager, all of them before, but I always worked in the commercial part, not in the government part, so I had to be creative. I have a new company called Space Terra Solutions, and it's based here in Las Vegas, in Nevada. We harness space technology for sustainable agrifood growth and production on earth and in space, but commercially. We look at how -- because one of the things is, you know, if the government is not supporting it, which the government should, is we got to look at how we could make it sustainable commercially. And that's what I look at too. And so we look at a diverse range of things. I call it my 10 impact areas. One, waste reutilization, which could be -- I call it dual purpose. Could be used in earth and space. Water reutilization, energy efficiency, utilization of AI, lighting, which is very important, robotic, feed development and nutrition, the different types of growth medium, 3D-printed lab, grow food wellness, and then we also look at the culinary arts. One of our clients, she is an ice cream scientist.

>> Maria Varmazis: Oh my god, best job ever. [laughter]

>> Allen Herbert: I'm telling you. She's looking at how, you know, how do we utilize ice cream in space, how do we make it in space, how do we do desserts in space. All of these things are important.

>> Maria Varmazis: She's speaking my language.

>> Allen Herbert: [inaudible] So all of these things are so important. You probably should have her on your podcast.

>> Maria Varmazis: Honestly, yeah.

>> Allen Herbert: So interesting. And so she -- I mean, she's been all over the world, everywhere. And that's one of our clients. So now she's looking at how she can -- she wants to do an experiment in space, on how you can -- ice cream melts, what's the best type to use. I mean, it is just amazing, what she's looking at.

>> Maria Varmazis: Way beyond freeze dried cubes that we --

>> Allen Herbert: No, that's not really astronaut -- no.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

>> Allen Herbert: But she's looking at how, when you grow strawberries -- you could grow strawberries in space -- how do you turn them into ice cream in space, in microgravity? I mean, it's just so much -- you know, Maria, --

>> Maria Varmazis: It's fun.

>> Allen Herbert: There's so many things that we have to look at if we're on the moon. All these things have to be commercial. So that's what we do. That's what I do now.

>> Maria Varmazis: Well that's amazing, and it sounds like the application is also like, not just in space, but also I hear a lot of things that have application on earth too, like making --

>> Allen Herbert: That's it.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah. And can you talk a little bit more about that too, because I mean, maybe it's my personal angle -- I am always fascinated about what we're going to be doing in space. But I'm -- to me, the -- what we're doing on earth is more immediate, I suppose, less abstract to me.

>> Allen Herbert: Okay, let's look at this -- water reutilization, okay? The water gets reused over, and over, and over again, even in the International Space Station. When we're on the moon, Mars, wherever we are, we're going to have to reutilize that. I live in Nevada. They have a water problem, so we have to look at that technology for water reutilization. In Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and desert regions, they have to look at water reutilization. We waste so much water here. So that same technology -- that's what I always look at, Maria -- could be used on earth and in space. And already some of the ISS technology they're using to reutilize water in other countries and things like that. Then waste reutilization, that's my passion, okay? I'm one of these people, when you go to a restaurant, I got to eat everything or I got to take it with me. In space, Maria, you can't take -- you can't waste -- "Oh, I'm going to throw this in the garbage. I'm going to do this." No, that food that you leave, or whatever you do, even the packaging has to be reutilized. And so that same technology could be used here. One of the things I was going to talk about later is that I try to live like I live as a astrofarmer, astrochef, whatever -- as if I live in space. What most people in space will be -- will have to be plant-based or lab-based, but really a lot of plant-based if we're going to grow it. But I look at, when I go somewhere, how to reutilize the food, I have a whole little garden I'm growing, using composting. We can start living like we would have to live in space, because in space, everything is, no joke, has to be reused. Then also energy efficiency. One of the issues with closed-environment agriculture even on earth is there's a lot of energy that needs to be for the whole closed environment. So on space you have to really be energy efficiency. AI -- utilizing AI for robotics, for the environment, for the nutrition. AI could be used in all kinds of things on earth and space. Lighting is huge in -- on earth, because you have to have efficient lighting, and it has to -- there's different type of lighting that grow the food in different type of way, could be used on earth and space. Robotics of course -- because astronauts can do all that, so you have to make it mechanized.

>> Maria Varmazis: Of course, yeah. Yep.

>> Allen Herbert: Seeing development in nutrition, I was involved in, where we sent seeds up into space, and they see how they react in space, and they brought it back to earth. So that's -- a lot of people are looking at that.

>> Maria Varmazis: The mutations, right? Yeah.

>> Allen Herbert: Yeah. The wellness -- I mean, there's so many things, even with the mutations that are sent up into space, you have to be able to deal with the harsh environment. But now they're using those seeds here on earth to grow in harsh environments. So the Chinese have been very -- really, leaders in that, and even the United Nations is starting to look at that. And so they could use them in -- as climate changes is reeking havoc, especially in harsh environments like deserts in Africa or around the world, they're looking at ways, how can we make these seeds strong, to be able to stand up to harsh environments?

>> Maria Varmazis: I was going to say, what kind of mutations are they seeing, once the seeds go to space? Is it that they're more able to withstand temperature swings, or --

>> Allen Herbert: Yes that's it, exactly. I mean, there's a whole scientific thing about it, but bottom line, it makes them stronger to deal with earth. It's like, you know the -- those science fiction movies -- the guy goes up, gets blasted, and then comes back as Superman, you know.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah.

>> Allen Herbert: So it's almost the same -- the Chinese are good at that. So in an unscientific way, yes, the seeds come down, and they're able to deal with a harsh environment, because they've been exposed, basically. And so the other thing is wellness. They say that astronauts, when they do the gardening on Space Station, it helps them deal -- because they see stuff growing, and it helps them deal with certain things. And being up there, they -- they're seeing -- they're watching some growth. Something grow, it's not dead, you know, like it's -- because space is just -- woo. And so that's what I see. What I see in the future, Maria, is that when you go on your trip to the moon, a vacation or as a journalist, or you're going to be interviewing people, "Why do you live here? What's going on here?" When you go out to eat, I want to see that it's a commercial company that is growing the food, that is getting the water, and even maybe another commercial company that's putting the food together for you to eat. I see it as commercial and not government, because I think even as time goes on, the commercial entities are going to really take over and do --

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah.

>> Allen Herbert: They're already doing that. Already you can see that now.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah, that's true. Yeah, yeah, yep.

>> Allen Herbert: But I see it more in a little niche here into the food production and things like that.

[ Music ]

>> Maria Varmazis: We'll be right back. When you said that you like to live like you're in space but here on earth, that made me think of two things. Like, the Zero Waste -- they call it a movement, but really, it's like --

>> Allen Herbert: Zero waste?

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's also in a way, free industrialization, kind of how humans had to live, because we couldn't waste stuff. And it's just amazing to think that we can actually look to the most modern of modern things, space, and be like, we can actually in a way, kind of get back to some of those principles of not wasting things. It's like this amazing tying of these two things that seem so far apart, but in a way, it's -- the principle sort of can actually bind them together. A lot of the times when I talk to people about what we can learn for earth, for the climate, from agricultural practices that we're developing in space, a lot of times a discussion goes to like, satellites helping us understand what's going on. I was curious what your thoughts are on that, like how that might relate to what you're talking about.

>> Allen Gilbert: Well I mean, I don't -- satellites are huge. It's commercial. What we do, we're looking at the -- what we can do here on earth and in space. Because satellites, they're going to -- they're looking at the earth; they're seeing when you need to plant, all kinds of things with the satellites. We don't get involved in that, that much. We're looking at, if this is real, okay, this is not "Star Trek," where we're going to, you know, go to the thing and the food come popping out.

>> Maria Varmazis: I mean, I would love that, but --

>> Allen Herbert: Yeah, me too. That should be coming sooner or later, but you're still going to need material.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah, of course.

>> Allen Herbert: But I still, I think that what we're doing, you have a multibillion-dollar industry, which is a closed environment agriculture, vertical farming, it came out of NASA from 40 years ago. And so this is a industry, and it's not going to change. We can have the satellites look at everything and do this, but in a place like Abu Dhabi or Dubai, where they import 85% of their food, they are looking at all kinds of technologies, so they could grow the food right there and maybe in a closed environment. They're spending millions on that. To them it's like the fix, basically. And it really came about more during the pandemic. Here in America we -- we're getting there, but it hasn't impact us yet, okay? But around the world, all the different places that have to import their food, they said, "Okay, we got to figure out we don't have a lot of land," okay? The satellites look at land. We got to figure out how to make food right here. If we're importing 90% of our food and there's a disruption in the supply chain, that's not good for us. And so for us, looking at what's happening around the world, we don't deal with the satellite technology as much as what's really needed here on earth right now and what's going to be really needed on the moon. I mean, they're not -- we're not going to be growing plants -- we're not going to need satellites to grow plants on the moon, you know. It's got to be enclosed. That's the future for what we're looking at right now. And another thing is, I look at commercially, technologies that you develop there can be used here on earth, because you have to look at a market, okay? There's not a huge market, right, you know, for doing food in space, and it's partially -- but it's mostly research.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah, that's sort of what -- the background question in my mind as you've been talking about this was the market for -- I mean, I know potentially we're going to get there, but right now I'm just wondering like, what -- yeah, you're addressing it, so I'd love to hear your thoughts.

>> Allen Herbert: Yeah. Yeah, so you know, for us, we always look at, okay, how do we apply this here on earth and have a market here on earth for this? You could have a AI system. You can have a energy-efficient system, water reutilization system, or even waste reutilization. What I'm doing is not technology, but it's -- I'm developing a system in my household, where "Okay, we're not going to waste this. We're not going to do this. We're going to live like we're in space," you know. You hear -- you say, "Oh, let's exercise like a astronaut. Let's live like --" You know, you hear like, all that kind of things. But if -- Maria, if you're in space, you're going to have to be very conscious of what you throw away, of what you use, what you eat. And I go to conferences and I can't take it sometimes, when I see all this food going to waste.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah. Yep, yeah.

>> Allen Gilbert: And you know, and they can't really just give it away to people, or whatever. They may put it in some kind of thing, but it's really wasted food. It just gets to me.

>> Maria Varmazis: I -- yep.

>> Allen Gilbert: If I go to a restaurant and I -- it's left, I take it. I always take my food.

>> Maria Varmazis: I -- honestly, I think a lot of us are with you on that. Yeah, conferences are notorious for that kind of waste. I mean, it's just like, yeah, I've seen that. You mentioned something really interesting that -- and I know it also speaks to your background, that you've -- you're a major advocate for perspectives about what's going on, and life in the Middle East, Africa, and the South Asia region. And I feel like especially since a lot of space discussions -- and it's not a bad thing; it's just how it is. Like, it's very U.S.-centric, often.

>> Allen Gilbert: Oh yes.

>> Maria Varmazis: Or U.S. and Western Europe. And I often wonder to myself, like, we're missing a lot. We're missing like, huge parts of the world. And given your expertise in your -- where you've worked, where you've lived, like to you, what's missing from the conversation when we talk about like, space and food, and maybe just like, commercial space in general?

>> Allen Gilbert: Well you know, I lived in Abu Dhabi for almost four years. And it was the middle of, you know, one part you have Southeast Asia. You had Africa. Everybody was very close. And they really respected what we were trying to do, and it really meant a lot. And I think the world is missing out, because if you look at India, they're doing all sorts of things very fast, and a good price. It's basically --

>> Abu Dhabi: Yeah, yep.

>> Allen Gilbert: Okay, and then the UAE, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, they're like the center of even for funding, they're getting their people ready for this new space world. They have invested funds going into it now. They're looking at the year 2017 to have their whole Mars settlement. They're -- they sent their astronaut up for six months. One of the reasons why I was there is their first astronaut went up in 2019, and the -- Nanoracks, the company I was with before, we helped set up 18 experiments for him. And that's how I started going back and forth, and I started living there, basically, to surround whole area. Then you have Israel. You have North Africa, South Africa, Nigeria, all these countries are doing a lot of stuff, mostly focused on satellite development. But they're looking at all these different things, and one of the things, Maria, by the year 2100, two out of three people in the world will be in the MASA region -- Middle East, Africa, South Asia. That's where they're going to come from. And so, you know, you watch "Star Trek," all these different shows, they're more diverse then. But in the future, that's the real -- that's -- and two out of three people in the world will be from those areas. And so they're trying right now for food, technology, development. So I think that more people need to pay more close attention, because everything -- coming back to America, I just got here in August. Everything is very U.S.-centric, and I said, "Don't -- do you realize what's going on out there?" And everybody in the world is getting involved -- China, Japan -- are looking at this region as a powerbase. I mean, Africa is really booming, and people don't even -- they -- because people have stereotypes of areas.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yes. Yes, they sure do.

>> Allen Gilbert: And so --

>> Maria Varmazis: Yep.

>> Allen Gilbert: They don't understand, a lot of stuff is going on. So I always, when I talk to people, I say, "Really pay close attention to the MASA region." I always say the MASA region. I think it's going to be a very powerful space area.

>> Maria Varmazis: I'm excited by it, personally. I think it's fantastic. It's a -- I'm based in the U.S. I'm an American citizen, but I'm like, I'm missing so much of the conversations happening around the world, because I am still so U.S.-centric. So I appreciate your perspective on that as well, because it's something that I always want to keep in mind. So is there anything else that you wanted to say to the audience, or -- yeah, by all means, go ahead.

>> Allen Gilbert: One of the things that I -- when I talk to people. When I was growing up, Maria, there was no STEM programs. And I always say this. It was "Star Trek," "Lost in Space," and "Space 1999."

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah.

>> Allen Gilbert: That was my STEM program.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah.

>> Allen Gilbert: Okay? And so I am very much into how media, you know, affects STEM. I started -- my wife is a writer, so she said -- and I started writing science fiction. I write what they call African science fiction, and I write science fiction about the MASA region. And so I started -- I'm writing stuff dealing with sustainability, space sustainability, but it's -- these are stories. These are, you know, fiction stories that people can get into, because I believe that what you -- like, what you were saying, if you see different types of people, you mean -- and some of the show -- movies and shows, you see different types of people, but it's always American-centric.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yes, yeah.

>> Allen Gilbert: Still.

>> Maria Varmazis: Oh yeah, especially "Star Trek." I love it, but yes, it's -- yeah.

>> Allen Gilbert: We're still Americans in there, so --

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah, they're like, "America doesn't exist." I'm like, it definitely still does in "Star Trek." I mean like, imperial, yeah.

>> Allen Gilbert: And so my stories, it's like, the captain may be from Africa, or from India, or from the Middle East, or whatever. I look at things -- because I lived there for four years. Abu Dhabi had 200 nationalities, and nobody was majority, basically. And so I was used to different people, different religions, different everything, you know. And so I believe that space is going to be like that, but people still don't see it all the time. I mean, there's so many British people in space. I don't know how that happening.

>> Maria Varmazis: I can guess.

>> Allen Gilbert: And so I mean, India is farther ahead than Britain right now, but you know, but that's my thing, is I love writing, listening to stories, reading about space and the -- especially the commercial aspects. That's what really gets to me -- the commercial aspect. So that's what I really leave with, is that hey, we're there; it's happening. We have to look at how commercially, things will keep going on. But people are making things happen around the world.

[ Music ]

>> Maria Varmazis: That's it for "T-Minus Deep Space" for December 2, 2023. We'd love to know what you think of this podcast. You can email us at space@n2k.com, or submit the survey in the Show Notes. Your feedback ensures that we deliver the information that keeps you a step ahead in the rapidly changing space industry. This episode was produced by Alice Carruth. Mixing by Elliott Peltzman and Trey Hester, with original music and sound design by Elliott Peltzman. Our executive producer is Jen Eiben. Our VP is Brandon Karpf, and I'm Maria Varmazis. Thanks for listening.

[ Music ]

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