Recently in Senegal there was a conference: the World Cowpea Research Conference.
Seriously, I think there might be a conference for everything.
But into those stories crept a paragraph along the lines of this one from ScienceDaily:
Even the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is on the cowpea bandwagon. With the plant’s ability to produce nutritious leaves in only about 20 days, NASA scientists are considering sending cowpeas to the international space station, where they could be cultivated to provide food for astronauts.
NASA has cowpea studies available from the 90s, and has more recently been testing their LED space lighting arrays on crops which included cowpeas, so I personally wouldn’t apply the term “bandwagon.” “Renewed interest,” perhaps.
Cowpeas are protein-licious (about 25% protein), which might come in handy considering that livestock would be even trickier to handle in space than a greenhouse. The quote above is probably based on this 1996 study by Ohler et al at the NASA Specialized Center of Research and Training in Bioregenerative Life Support at Purdue, which concluded that a 20-day harvest cycle was most efficient for food production… if you ate the plant itself, instead of cultivating it for beans.
This entertains me especially considering that the ScienceDaily article described the vegetative portions of the plant as “leaves and stalks that serve as especially nutritious fodder for cows.” I mean, yes, that’s why it’s called cowpea, but still. Ohler et al inform us that the leafy parts are nutritious for the Homo sapiens in the audience as well:
Like the protein in seeds, cowpea leaf protein complements that of cereal grains (Maeda, 1985). Leaves also are a good source of minerals, specifically Fe, Ca, K, and Zn (Imungiand Potter, 1983). Raw leaves are high in vitamin C, carotene, and folacin, although 80% of these vitamins can be lost during cooking.
One of the problems mentioned in the above news articles as facing earthbound cowpea cultivation is weevils, which eat the dried beans when they’re being stored in traditional bags. One remedy, ScienceDaily says, is
a three-layer plastic bag that shuts off the oxygen required to fuel a weevil population explosion.
You know what else shuts off oxygen? The vacuum of space.
While I regret the missed opportunity to write about space weevils, I doubt that cowpea weevils will be a big problem for astronauts. Though it did make me wonder: you know how when it’s really cold out you can just store stuff from your freezer on the porch/windowsill/roof? I mean, unless it would attract bears or raccoons or something. Which are also not a problem in space. Is there anything to prevent astronauts from hanging their food stores on the outside of the ship, aside from the access issue? Is there a reason to do it? It would free up room inside. But what if your food was hit by a meteoroid?
I kind of want them to try anyway.
By the way, the cowpea is also called the black-eyed pea.
…Look, there are a lot of way more annoying Black Eyed Peas songs I could have chosen. This one even included a guy in a spacesuit. Relevant!