Proof of Plant: A New Vision for Crypto, Pt 1

PDF download: Proof of Plant

[Author’s note: This is the first of two notes where I set out a proposal for a new way of looking at and applying cryptocurrency systems. This note will review the rationale and general form of a proof-of-plant token, and the follow-up will examine a specific use case and distributed ledger instantiation.]

“Mining” is a bad word.

I’ve spent a professional career looking at the ways we humans are hard-wired and socially-trained to respond to words and patterns of words, and “mining” is a particularly evocative word, a word that contains a story arc in and of itself.

It’s a negative story.

“Mining” tells a story of extraction and destruction. “Mining” tells a story of aggression against nature, a defilement of nature. What’s the first image that pops into your head when you hear the word? I bet it’s either giant machines digging a gaping, barren hole in the ground, or grimy men (and only men … “mining” is the most male of words) entering a dark cavern of hard labor.

It’s always been this way. Some of our oldest human stories are the myths of Descent – as miners have done for millennia – and it’s always a journey into the sunless, lifeless realm of the dead. There’s wealth (and knowledge) to be mined from the underworld, sure. The gods of the underworld are also the gods of wealth in most mythologies, and there are no secrets among the dead. But the stories of these subterranean worlds are literally stories of hell, and stories of the personified underworld are literally stories of raping a personified Earth.

You may not think that the language of “mining Bitcoin” makes a difference in the adoption and perception of Bitcoin in general and crypto more generally, but you would be wrong. It’s part and parcel of the increasingly powerful and popular narrative that Bitcoin is anti-green and anti-environment, that it is at best a “waste” of energy and at worst a direct contributor to “climate change”.

I have zero interest in debating the facts or claims of this narrative that Bitcoin is anti-green and anti-environment. Of course it’s true. Of course it’s false. So what? If you get nothing else out of Epsilon Theory, get this: the strength of a narrative (and of information itself in a meaning-of-the-universe sort of way) has nothing to do with truth. The strength of a narrative is how much it changes someone’s mind. And the Bitcoin-is-terrible-for-the-environment narrative is changing a lot of people’s minds. I’m sorry, but THAT is truth.

I’ll say this about the energy consumption of Bitcoin, though. In a very fundamental way, money IS a store of energy, or at least a persistent representation (a token) of energy. Money, broadly understood, is the primary way in which we store the energy of our human labor and time and life across time and geography, converting something that is entirely nonfungible, like a good idea or an hour’s labor, into something that can be saved or traded or divided or combined. That’s what money DOES. Bitcoin – or any proof-of-work token – crystallizes this basic property of all money with the intentional consumption of energy in the “mining” of a coin. It’s a very in-your-face way of creating a persistent representation of energy and thus value!

But every cryptocurrency, every coin, every token, whether it’s based on proof-of-storage or proof-of-stake or proof-of-whatever, is doing the same thing, just in a less in-your-face way than a proof-of-work token. Ditto for a gold or silver coin. It’s a representation of a store of energy. Ditto for a dollar bill. Everything we think of as money is a representation of a store of energy, each wrapped in a different narrative to capture our imagination and allegiance.

I can’t emphasize this point enough. It’s at the heart of the entire Epsilon Theory project. Narrative and story are the engine of value for everything in our social worlds, and nowhere does this manifest more powerfully than in the phenomenon of MONEY. There’s no there there when it comes to money. It’s all narrative. It’s only narrative. That’s utterly obvious when it comes to crypto, where Elon tweets and Shiba Inu memes create and destroy fortunes, but it’s just as true with dollars and euros and yen and renminbi, where the tether between taxes and spending – the most important policy relationship in our social lives – is now well and truly snipped.

I believe human society has become completely unmoored when it comes to money, because everyone now gets the joke: it’s narratives all the way down.

I also believe there is a path out.

I believe there is an untapped source of narrative, social and physical power that can rejuvenate not only the constructed world of money, but also the real world of making, protecting and teaching.

It’s a narrative source of power because it taps directly into the most inspirational Old Stories ever told – stories of growth and life.

It’s a social source of power because it taps directly into the most politically and economically important industry in the world – agriculture.

It’s a physical source of power because it taps directly into the dominant store of energy on earth for the past 500 million years – plants.

I want to change the language of crypto from mining to growing.

I do not mean this in a metaphorical sense.

I want to propose a proof-of-plant method for literally growing cryptocurrency tokens as a representation of the value stored in the human cultivation of plants.

My proposed “proof of work” is the real world activity of growing a useful plant to help human society rather than the real world activity of consuming electricity to solve an artificially hard math problem.

I think a narrative based on proof-of-plant can capture a LOT of people’s imagination and allegiance.

That’s what will create a successful token.

I think a social movement based on a renewed focus on long-term growth and the cultivation of life can transform our political and economic system from the bottom-up.

That’s what will change the world.

For the farmers and the growers of today, what I’m proposing is a freebie. You’ve already invested all of the capital and all of the time and all of the labor to cultivate a plant. That gets you a token. There’s no additional cost or work required. This is a cryptographic system that seeks to reward you for what you’ve already done! This applies to grasses like wheat and rice. This applies to row crops like soybeans and corn. This applies to greenhouse plants like tomatoes and lettuce. This applies to “non-herbaceous perennials” like apple trees and white pines. It applies to anything humans can grow. Take a picture of the plant you’ve grown and automatically get a token representing that plant’s species, location, variety, and health. Which you can sell. Which can be tranched and bundled into representations of agricultural practices and qualities with extremely popular associated narratives. Like domestically-grown. Like disease-free. Like carbon-capturing. Like non-monoculture. Like legalized-cannabis. Like good-for-the-immune-system. Like healthy-living-in-general. Like more-sustainable-in-general.

All farmers and growers, including the most massive agribusinesses on the planet, will benefit from this system. That’s a feature, not a bug. Farmers and growers who are resisting the dominant monocultures, however, who are engaged in more sustainable agricultural practices and who are capturing the Zeitgeist of green narratives … they will benefit most of all.

Why will sustainable, narrative-forward farmers and growers do well in this system? Because narratives drive price. Because these are the stories that will drive number-go-up in these narrative-aligned tokens. Because buying these tokens and related “narrative baskets” of tokens is a direct support of these farmers and growers. It’s not buying some produce that you think/hope is domestically grown and imagining that this trickles down eventually to support the grower. No, it’s an investment in exactly those growers who you want to support.

It’s not charity, either. You can make money with these tokens, in exactly the same way you can make money with any other token. This IS capitalism, in a really interesting form, where your social preferences can be sorted out through an economic transaction AND where a speculation layer of – let’s call it what it is – greed can be added on top. Which is a powerful narrative itself, in case you hadn’t noticed!

Everyone has an opinion about the environment. Everyone has an opinion about health. Everyone has an opinion about the food we eat and the supply chains that get it from the farm to the table. Proof-of-plant tokens allow ALL of these opinions and preferences to be expressed within an option-like market structure. I think the trading activity and liquidity that will occur when these preferences get sorted will be … awe-inspiring.

If it seems like this proof-of-plant token idea is a weird form of carbon credits, you’re not too far off the mark. It IS weird, and it does tap into many of the same narratives and social preferences. But here’s the big difference: it’s not government-mandated. It’s not a regulation. It’s not a bureaucratic stick. Don’t get me wrong, those government-mandated, regulatory sticks may well be a necessary thing. But they’re not MY thing. My thing is to find a bottom-up, entirely voluntary, independent small-l liberal system to sort out preferences and get capital into more productive uses. Imagine that.

That’s a lot of pretty-sounding words, and I know that the idea of a crypto token generated by plant cultivation sounds bonkers. Maybe it is. At the very least, I’m sure that I’ve missed crucial questions that need to be answered, and by the end of this series of notes I’ll pretty much just be waving my hands at important implementation issues. All the same, I’m putting this proof-of-plant method out there now in hopes that others will take some degree of inspiration from these ideas and help push them further. I’ve marked this note liberally with (c) as a placeholder, but the intention here is that this all goes into Creative Commons and similar open source licensing. If anyone wants to advise on how best to accomplish that, I’m all ears. On a related note, I am almost certainly going to misuse cryptographic terms of art in this note. I think my meaning is straightforward, however, and I’d welcome constructive editing suggestions.

To be clear, this is not an effort to “rescue” Bitcoin. This really has nothing to do with Bitcoin, as I’m not trying to accomplish Bitcoin’s goals, which I take to be the creation of a fixed supply of censorship-resistant tokens that can serve as a hard monetary system existing outside national fiat currencies. Do I admire those goals and the artistic elegance of Satoshi’s cryptographic system to achieve them? Absolutely! Are these my goals? Is this my art? No.

My art – a distributed ledger composed of public cryptographic keys representing the work and energy required to cultivate verifiably unique plantings – is painted/sculpted/constructed out of a completely different medium than Satoshi’s art. The biology of plant life and the social practices of human agriculture are inextricable features of my art, where they would be intractable bugs in Bitcoin and other crypto projects.

For example, unlike anything you might “mine”, plants are … alive. They sprout. They grow. They die. As a result, there is an element of time and decay embedded in this proof-of-plant cryptographic system that would be unnecessary and unwelcome in Satoshi’s system. If you’re familiar with options markets or credit default swaps, the structure of what I’m proposing will seem intuitive to you. I suspect that if you’re familiar with farming or gardening this will seem intuitive, too! But if you’re locked into the world of Bitcoin, where the entire game is based on a narrative of the immutability and permanence of a mathematically-defined set of tokens, then this effort will probably seem very foreign (and very wrong).

Or to take another example, plants are bound to the real property where they are grown. Plants are physical and persistent. They ARE the store of energy. Plants are owned and possessed by law in a way that math problems or electricity or computing processing flops just aren’t. As a result, it is possible (and I believe necessary and just) to recognize property rights within this cryptographic system, which in turn requires a degree of centralization and token censorship protocols that would be absolute anathema for Bitcoin. Did you mine a Bitcoin using stolen electricity and computing processing power? Well, it’s all yours, and there’s no changing that from within the blockchain. On the other hand, did you grow some apple tree tokens using your neighbor’s apple orchard? Well, you’re in trouble, because your neighbor can see from the public key that the tokens are associated with her land, challenge their legitimacy, and force those tokens to be erased from the apple tree ledger if successful in her challenge. Again, very intuitive as a concept to anyone who works in the real world; not so much if you’re immersed in the Wild West of Bitcoin and crypto.

I’m proposing a market-based system and exchange-traded tokens, so I understand why that would put the reader into a Bitcoin frame of mind. But it’s a perspective that will steer you wrong, I think. This is a blockchain-not-Bitcoin idea, or better yet a distributed-ledger-not-Bitcoin idea, where I am embracing elements of centralization (i.e. oversight) and censorship (i.e. adjudication and revision), not rejecting them.

What I am proposing is infinitely closer in structure to Wikipedia than it is to Bitcoin.

And yes, an apple tree token.

At an atomic level, the tokens created in a proof-of-plant cryptographic system represent adult specimens of a specific plant species, although as I’ll describe later there is room in the methodology to create tokens representing any real asset, including produce (apples rather than apple trees) and by-products (timber rather than trees). But in this general methodology, there would be an apple tree token that is separate from a tomato plant token that is separate from a lettuce token that is separate from a wheat token that is separate from a corn token that is separate from a cannabis token, and each of these species-based tokens would contain additional data on specific plant location, variety, maturity, health … any quality that can be identified through visual imagery. As I’m envisioning this, there will be a LOT of separate proof-of-plant tokens that are grown, each with its adherents and narratives. The goal here is to establish a generic set of methods to develop any number of popular narrative expressions associated with the cultivation and growth of living things, and then let a robust and transparent market sort out our preferences and reward the associated growers accordingly.

So here are the methods. Throughout all of this, think “facial recognition software for plants” and you’ll have the right intuition for the system.

A secure data collection app that accesses the camera and location/orientation metadata on a smartphone or drone is where the proof-of-plant token creation process begins.

At its core, the app is responsible for simultaneous generation of a high-resolution photograph of the target plantings, accurate geographic coordinates for the camera (including elevation), precise camera orientation angle data, and a time stamp. I say simultaneous generation because it’s crucial that we marry this data in a trustworthy way … simultaneous so that we’re not accepting an old photo or a photo of a different location, generation so that we’re not accepting an externally supplied fake photo or fake location. By keeping this simultaneous data generation and capture in-app, or at least securely verifying simultaneous data generation and capture from other trusted apps, I think we can prevent the vast majority of obvious attack or spoof vectors against the system. I totally get that developing an app like this is a non-trivial task! But it’s not an impossible one, either.

This data file (photograph + camera metadata) is then analyzed by an identification program for species confirmation/counting and spatial normalization/mapping.

This is the core “facial recognition software for plants” function, and it’s both easier and more difficult than most applications of human facial recognition software. The easier part is that we’re not trying to identify a unique entity. We’re not trying to identify John Smith in a crowd of other humans, we’re just trying to distinguish a crowd of humans from a crowd of cats, and then count the number of humans in that crowd. The harder part is that our camera is not in some set location at a set altitude and set orientation, like a security camera at a train station, and so our system has to handle a much wider range of image inputs. In general, though, I think there will be two basic types of photographs to process: imagery of plants that can be counted by identifying individual stalks/trunks or canopies/foliage, like apple trees or tomato plants, and imagery of plants that are best estimated in the aggregate across a planted surface area, like soybeans or wheat. The former can be counted individually, with tokens assigned for each apple tree or tomato plant. The latter are better counted by surface area, with tokens assigned for each acre or hectare of cultivated soybeans or wheat.

Each of these two species identification and counting processes (let’s call them orchards vs. crops for short) has its own idiosyncratic issues, none of which are trivial to solve. But the advances that have been made in AI and ML applications just over the past few years for exactly this sort of entity recognition/identification problem (how many tomato plant central stalks are in this picture? is this an aerial shot of healthy wheat or wheat infected with leaf rust?) give me a lot of confidence that it’s not only possible to count and distinguish between apple trees and soybeans, but to count and distinguish between young apple trees and old apple trees, or between healthy apple trees and blighted apple trees. In other words, I think that the obvious “facial recognition” aspects of this process as they apply to plants are not only achievable, but robust enough to allow pretty specific differentiation on a wide range of qualities of plant species, whether that’s variety, age, health, yield productivity, or whatever.

What’s more challenging, I suspect, is normalizing these images for spatial dimensions, spatial location and perspective. In all cases, whether we’re counting individual stalks or estimating a count based on crop coverage, it’s necessary to measure the planted surface area we want to evaluate. That’s easiest to imagine with an overhead drone shot looking straight down, but you can do this with any photograph by taking camera orientation data and known information about the plants themselves (leaf size, etc), and “flattening” the photo on two surface area dimensions. Here, too, the AI and ML advances for doing this sort of mapping (largely driven by autonomous vehicle research) over the past few years have been enormous.

Basically we’re overlaying a zillion photographs from every imaginable perspective onto a map of arable land and greenhouse facilities to create a spatial database of (potentially) every plant cultivation on Earth, at a resolution level that allows the identification of individual plants.

LOL. It’s a gigantic database, the biggest that humans have ever created if it reaches full fruition (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun). That said, it’s not that complicated. It’s just big. The spatial normalization of these images to overlay them on a map is basic math, if you’ve got sufficiently accurate camera orientation and altitude metadata (I realize that this is an important ‘if’). As with the data collection app, there’s nothing easy about developing this plant identification/counting + spatial normalization function. But I don’t think it’s that difficult, either. It’s a big database. But it’s only a big database.

Like I said earlier, I have no doubt that I’ve left out important steps in this whole process and used terms of art weirdly or mistakenly. I think that I’ve figured out solutions to a lot of edge cases (what if you put a greenhouse on a truck and moved it forward 100 yards and took new pictures? what if you flew your drone over your neighbor’s almond orchard?), but I’m sure there are hundreds more I haven’t considered. Still, I think there’s enough here to give people who are more technically adept than me a blueprint for how to get this off the ground.

How much will this cost to set up? A lot. But we don’t have to boil the ocean. It can start in places where it’s clearer to grasp (counting apple trees, for example) and where the tokens have a long duration (again, apple trees). The start-up capital here will come from clear-eyed, full-hearted people and allied foundations and endowments. Big Ag will put some money into this, and I’d take it. So will Wall Street once they get a whiff of the speculation layer that’s possible to place on these tokens, and I’d take that money, too. Ultimately this project completely destabilizes Big Ag and Wall Street in a way that Bitcoin never will, but that won’t be obvious for a long time. So yeah, take whatever amount of money it took to set up Wikipedia, quadruple that, and that’s probably your number. It’s a big number. But it’s only a big number.

What’s the timetable for this? Well, it’s possible that when all is said and done we will have built the largest spatial database in human history. It’s possible that we will transform the concept of money, create a general system for the decentralized securitization of any real asset, and disintermediate pretty much every major financial institution on the planet. It’s possible that we will reconnect our abstracted lives to the real world and its bounty. Surely we will need a few years to consult with appropriate corporate and regulatory stakeholders so that the process can be appropriately managed.

LOL. Don’t call me Shirley.

What’s the timetable for this? How about now.

The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago.

The second best time is now.

That’s an old saying that I first came across in The Overstory, by Richard Powers, an inspiring work that you should read, too. Yes, it’s about trees, but only in the same way that Moby Dick is about whales.

It’s time to focus on long-term growth and the cultivation of life in every aspect of our world.

It’s time to be a steward, not a manager. It’s time to be a grower, not a miner.

It’s time.


PDF download: Proof of Plant

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  1. Ben, there is no person I have ever known with more creative energy and originality than you. Mamma Mia. This is so cool. The idea seems jusssst on the correct side of the line that separates “visionary/ambitious” from “insane”.
    The biggest source of risk I see here is: bad puns.

  2. I came here for the financial insights, empowered by the questions and commentary posed by Ben and Rusty.
    I found a lot going on.  Only some of it is related to finance.  
    Pretty much summed up in the following two quotes:
    We literally don’t know what we don’t know.How does this affect us? People who don’t ask questions don’t get answers. NEVER be afraid to ask a question, even if everyone you know thinks the answer is obvious. We’ll never progress without the simple question, why?
    -Jim OShaughnessy

    Knowing isn’t enough. You must act. Action without knowledge is foolish. Knowledge without action is futile.
    -Jim OShaughnessy

  3. Avatar for olowe olowe says:

    Thanks Ben, I really like this idea and carbon credits are red hot of course. Check out It’s part of the OSTK/Medici portfolio taken over by Pelion VC. Also, while he appears more focused on energy & metals which are his roots, Josh Crumb at Abaxx Technologies may have some constructive ideas for the technology. Finally for urbanites, check out if all of a sudden you’re inspired to grow leafy greens year round.

  4. Cool! I will ponder this more, but the first thing that came to mind is a question of fruitfulness (I can pin too!). Is the value in the plant or in its fruit/yield. In the acre or in its bounty/yield. Seems we would want to reward and value sustainability as measured by outputs relative to inputs. A greenhouse of tomatoes is much more environmentally and economically productive than an equivalent area of field grown tomatoes. And my greenhouse tomatoes are not the same as yours - even if the same genetic variety.

  5. My simple stupid question: If a farmer sells his apple tree token, he still owns the physical tree - correct?
    He can still harvest the physical apples from the tree, sell them and keep the proceeds -right? He can still sell the tree and keep the proceeds, he can still cut it down or do anything to it as he still owns the physical tree even though he sold the tokenized tree - right?
    Is the above correct or, quite possibly, have I completely missed the entire idea here?
    I appreciate any response, even those that say I’m an idiot (I’ve long suspected that anyway) just as long as you show me why.
    Thank you.

  6. Can this part of the MPT virtual Forum

  7. As I was reading this article the speech from Atlas Shrugged came to mind when one of the main characters hears a member at a party claim that money is the root of all evil. It is too long to post here, but here is a link to it:

    I don’t think it fits you narrative entirely, but the base concept of what money represents is in there.

  8. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Yes. The tokens have absolutely zero claim on anything. They are purely a representation of the growth of an apple tree.

  9. I love the bananas reaching here> Someone’s gotta come up with the big ideas. I love it. Ben you really are one of a kind and I think this is some FASCINATING territory to explore. Can’t wait for volume 2.

  10. Thank you Ben.

  11. Wow. I’ll be chewing on this for months. As a fourth gen farm operator, I absolutely love new ideas to help the lands, the systems, and our bottom line. We have much work to do to clean up our industry. I hope ideas like this take root. Cant wait to share this with the local forward thinking farmers. Thank you, Ben. You’re a gift to us all.

  12. Haven’t read that very enjoyable speech in a long time until today. Thank you for posting the link. All of it is worth a quote, but loved this:

    “Let me give you a tip on a clue to men’s characters: the man who damns money has obtained it dishonorably; the man who respects it has earned it. 
    Run for your life from any man who tells you that money is evil…"

    I completely get that Rand’s world is too black and white; Ben might even call it a cartoon. But if it is a cartoon, good for it as we need more “small L” liberal cartoons in a world awash in “progressive” cartoons.

  13. This is doable. Cocoa trees would be a good place to start; they have an established crop share market, are easy to GPS and low yield. Next a secure marketplace for transacting and token tracking. Finally, a crypto token generator, probably Stellar XLM. Stellar would enable proof-of-planters to generate representative tokens without complexity, while your marketplace would track crypto token/publickey to GPS/yield/photo/comments. When I say doable I mean no innovate breakthrough technologies necessary, you could get started today. There are also a ton of small Cocoa tree farmers in need of financial stimulus, so win-win.
    These types of ideas are lost in the maelstrom that is Crypto today. Most crypto currencies lack a tether in reality. Bitcoin was inadvertently tethered to the price of a ~Tesla, no longer. Proof-of-Plant has a tether that is easy to see. Even if the value of a crop were disassociated from fiat, you could still transact Plant to Plant (Tomato <> Cucumber) with relative ease, the value is understood. Without a tether you have the chaos which is today: How many Doge for a Eth for a NFT of a psychedelic Dinosaur? There’s no sane way to make that judgement.
    I had thought of a different tether, distance on a commuter or leisure train using peak hydro-electric waste from the Shepaug Dam in CT. Lots of un-used rail in that area. As a bonus individuals who bought a bunch of garbage coins that devalued into nothingness could trade them for the Rail currency and ride the train as a form of closure. Not a grand marketplace, but a much needed conversion from abstract virtual transactions to tactile reality.

  14. Great Concept. Everyone around me calls me the wet blanket or the brake. I prefer to say that I bring up the issues before they become terminal. I’m not trying to kill the idea, just trying to prevent the idea from killing me/us/the company/ etc. In that frame, I see a couple of issues:

    1. Annuals vs. Perennials. What happens to the token when the plant dies?
    2. Hydroponics: Does a plant need to be planted to get a token, or is it enough to just go into production?
    3. Vertical Gardens: If they ever become a real thing, how does that impact the token
    4. Nurseries: Who gets to create the token? Does the nursery get the token once the seed or clipping sprouts? Does the purchaser get the token when they plant it?
    5. Decorative plants: How do we handle the seasonal floral displays that municipalities, real estate companies and other interior designers or landscapers create? (Yes, I'm looking at you median mums and Lobby Lilies.
    The concept is incredibly innovative, but the details will require a lot of thought and negotiation.
  15. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Merely adopting the language of growth and farming is definitely what I did NOT want to do.

  16. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    All excellent questions and all topics that (I hope) I can answer to your satisfaction in part 2 of the note.

  17. Love the idea, but, there’s no such thing as a secure data collection app if you’re not in physical possession of the hardware running it.

  18. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    I hear you, although the goal is to be secure-enough, which gives us a lot of work-arounds.

  19. Avatar for Kevin Kevin says:

    Ben, I love the idea. I’m a crypto user (yeah, actual user since 2014, don’t ask me where) and investor. I also like to grow plants, when the deer let me. So I’ll join in and contribute as soon as possible.

    But I struggle to see how my plant token could ever be anything more than an NFT. Like an NBA Top Shots, but for plants. Fun, and interesting, but more like trading sports cards than a currency. I’m having a hard time imagining how this could actually function as a currency or be something that would be securitized.

  20. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Part 2 next week, Kevin. Will almost certainly raise as many questions/concerns as it answers, but I’m counting on the Pack and its collective brainpower to make progress on this together!

  21. Interesting idea Ben!

    The arborist spirit of this proposal reminds me of other crypto projects I’ve been interested in for awhile now like Filecoin or Helium, which I consider as “utility tokens”.

    In the former, attempting to earn it’s token helps to incentivize the creation of a low cost version of Amazon S3, while the latter attempts to create a decentralized, low cost, widely available network for IoT devices.

    This would, in the real world, attempt to incentivize the growth of “high value cash crops”, or at least how the current concept is written.

  22. At first though, you’d have a group of people flying all around the world trying to catalog every plant they could find ?.

  23. An open ledger exchange value for the prime plant tokens would be a beacon for subsequent transactions. Because the type of contract for the future of the plant is a variable and ‘in the price’ of the token, market forces could determine nominal currency equivalence and heads of terms preferences. There is a fairly good level of security in the future value of a diverse array of specific tangible flora controlling paper, if a deep enough market existed. Lumber rights might trade like the 10yr and ornamentals like retail fashion.  

  24. I am assuming that the details of actually powering the servers required to run the DLT will be discussed in Article 2.

    Tokens represent growth of a plant, but do not represent ownership of a plant. In other words the only non speculative reason for buying tokens is to support (and more importantly to publicly show your support) of plant growth. Meaning a voluntary carbon credits program, but powered by DLT. Interesting concept. I look forward to reading more about it.

    A few technical thoughts, the double spend in crypto speak.
    It would be a lot easier to scale if you integrate yield mapping GPS data for row crops. 200 acres of anything is hard to capture in a photo. Photo also wouldn’t let you determine plant density per acre at scale. With photos I could alter my row spacing by one inch and not tell you and at scale over a few thousand acres that would create lots of extra value for me in tokens that I’ve sold you that don’t have corresponding plants.
    For tree farms, I’m not sure how you solve that double spend problem. Photos of individual trunks plus an aerial of the property? How do you verify that it’s not the same tree with a photo from a different angle?
    How do you handle CRP acreage, Switchgrass, etc? There would have to be a way to base it on acreage with an average density vs actual plants and actual pictures. That way would need to be simple for the grower to do (like a photo) and simple to verify.

  25. Avatar for jrs jrs says:

    Of course I like the vision. And here’s my main concern, about which I will now ramble: why would this system not just cause ADM and other agro-giants to just become bigger?
    I aspire to practice backyard permaculture in the sense of Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway. (See his blog essay “Stocks and Flows” for a cartoon summary.) I suspect that myself and millions of others would prefer most of our food to be grown this way for multiple reasons.
    In this context, a lot of your vision depends not just on all these photos you describe, but also a ton of metadata that can be fudged. What metadata could one collect that signifies a product, eg, comes from a polyculture setup? How fudge-able is that metadata?
    I fear that this could turn out analogous to how cannabis legalization in CA has had the effect of shutting the little guys down because only the big guys can afford all the Organic! (R), Environmentally Friendly! (R), et al regulations that have been put into place. These regulations have the functional effect of feeding the machine.
    Are you familiar with James Scott’s book Seeing Like A State? He introduces a concept of “legibility” there which I think is very relevant. Essentially, you are trying to make agriculture legible. However, true permaculture by its nature does not seem very legible to me. Attempts to make it legible have arguably created monstrosities like Organic Produce! (R) Many permaculture farmers in my area are intentionally not certified organic as they reject this cartoon and the bureaucracy it has spawned.

  26. Avatar for jrs jrs says:

    Er, Hemenway’s essay is “Flowing toward abundance”. One of the last things he wrote before his untimely death from cancer.

  27. Fascinating idea!
    If this works for plants, it’d probably work for animals too. I’d love a reliable way to cut factory farms out of my food consumption.
    And if this works for plants and/or animals, my hunch is it would work even better in the fungal kingdom where both our knowledge and our business models are less developed but growing faster. Mushrooms are already being used to clean our environment, heal our bodies and minds, create ecological materials, feed refugees, and more. But we’re still very early in figuring out how to do these things at scale and in a way that properly aligns incentives. So there are fewer entrenched interests to fight against.
    I’d argue narratives are just as strong for fungi just as they are for plants. We’ve always been eager to create narratives around mushrooms, which is why they show up in early art and rituals. Now movies like Fantastic Fungi tell us that “mycelium is Earth’s natural Internet”, and we’ve learned that the largest organism on the planet is a mycelial mat in Oregon (one cell wall thick!) Other narratives are clearly improving, e.g. the psychedelic ETF that now trades wouldn’t have been possible without the shift in narrative from “magic mushrooms” or “shrooms” (suggesting hippies at Burning Man) to “psychedelics” (where mushrooms fall under the “organic” or “natural” umbrella, rather than “synthetic”).
    I really look forward to seeing where this idea goes!

  28. It goes a bit deeper than that. Chia does not use proof of work, using instead proof of space (reservation of space on hard drives, which is mostly passive, as opposed to burning CPU cycles). As such it is supposed to avoid most of the energy waste of proof of work. The metaphor works nicely, initially laying out disk space in a way that can be later confirmed is called “plotting”. Once space is “plotted” (once), it can be “farmed” (many times, by passively participating in the network and answering challenges from the data in the plot without burning CPU).
    They are obviously using the metaphor to emphasize their much lower energy consumption compared to proof of work. And started doing that a while back (more than a year?), with several articles in the news describing what they do and repeating the language.

  29. Cool idea. One part of the crypto narrative that I think this piece misses is that crypto proponents are energized by the potential to reset who is wealthy. Sure lots of billionaires have invested in crypto, but the chance for the little guy to hit it big and vault into the higher echelons of wealth is at the core of the movement. Proof of plant seems to directly reward land owners.
    What will be the incentive for the millions of people who owns no land to get behind the narrative?

  30. From a basic understanding of the first and second law of thermodynamics:
    Bitcoin mining makes sense under the first law.
    Its tragic flaw is the second law.   

  31. Fascinating piece Ben. Love your creativity. I could be wrong, and frequently am, but it’s seems like proof of plant is just another derivative, like soybean futures. Bitcoin, however, isn’t derivative of anything, which is it’s main attractive feature. It’s also scarce and not renewable, again attractive features. As you correctly point out, money is ultimately a store of energy and so is crypto, albeit with a more direct path. However I applaud your analogy on mining vs growing.

    As long as we’re going off on wild tangents, how about forcing our government to disclose the alien tech it has been secretly experimenting with for 6 decades ? If ETs are real, and I believe they are, they would have had to create amazing tech to harness energy in ways we can’t imagine. Like anti gravity. But the deepest state military industrial / fossil fuel complex has all the reasons in the world to hide this from us.

    Imagine having all the energy we need at nearly 0 relative cost ? If human existence is primarily about the harnessing of energy, this would transform our world.

    OK, I’ll put the bong away now

  32. Money is not really a store of energy. That is a flawed analogy. Money is a store of debt. It is how we account for production today that is to be rewarded in the future. We are given (give) money to reflect that you did work today and we owe you a debt for that work…so here is some iou’s to cash it in.

    Currencies (bitcoins, USD, etc) are how we keep track of those debts. In a world where there were no agreed upon currencies, tangible real world substitutes (seeds, ores, etc) were used instead.

    Whatever it is, proof of plant is not a currency and (if I read Ben correctly) not meant to be one.

    It’s interesting to me that no matter how many times Ben says that proof-of-plant is not about bitcoin, people keep still coming back and saying bitcoin is better.

  33. Ok, I am going to push back on this pretty hard, but this will be in good faith. This is my first impressions, which is that it’s not going to work- as in not feasible.

    Philosophically I love the idea of “proof-of-plant”… Or at least a variant like “proof-of-growth”. That will take time to ruminate on and see how it can fit into the nature of distributed ledgers technologies. “Can you capture the productive human endeavor into a token?” seems to be the question here.

    Anyways, here’s the big, gaping, glaring hole in the current design as presented:

    Massively inflationary, where does my corn-coin get consumed?

    The value proposition of Bitcoin is its relative scarcity- There are only 21 million, and likely only ever will be. If you add 3000 square miles of corn-coin, per season, you’re going to have a hell of a lot of corn.

    In the real world, the market decides the value of corn by its consumption. Humans endeavor to “value-add” the corn- package/ship/market, or convert to high fructose syrup, until its ultimately literally consumed.

    Each step is an action of consumption, and continuation up a supply chain. Each step is “regulated” by the market- in that the tension between what sellers will sell for, and what buyers will buy for, gives a direct number for that value-add us humans endeavored.

    That’s a long way of saying the tokenomics of corn-coin are terrible. For value to stabilize, there must be demand for the supply. Consider this an axiom:

    If you are going to have unrestricted inflation of something, you must have an equal and opposite consumption of that thing.

    Bitcoin, essentially, has zero inflation. There are 21 million coins, therefore no consumption is necessary- the invisible accountant of the market is satisfied that the item zeros out.

    The corn-coin needs to be consumed at the rate of inflation for price to stabliize. Consumption, unfortunately, means utility. Creating utility turns this from a mad idea into an essentially unfeasible one, in my opinion.

    Mapping real world data as an on-chain representation

    This falls under “a lot of work” in the Holy shit this is a LOT of work sense. You essentially need each individual plant to be mapped on a blockchain. This likely means starting from the biological family all the way down to it’s species, all the way down to the specific properties of a single, or group, of plants.

    Probably need to explore an implementation of semi-fungible token. Corn can be interchangeable and non-interchangeable at the same time. One stalk of corn is the same as another, unless it has rustleaf.

    On the idea of rustleaf. If one stalk in an acre of corn has identified disease, is the entire acre considered diseased? Well I guess if our friendly farmer wanted to retain value, he’s going to have to prove which corn is good and which is bad. The real world analogy is food grades- AAA through to whatever is only good for the pigs. That entire ecosystem is regulated through governments and markets- trying to replicate this on-chain so that its worth it for our farmer to maximize the value of his crop is going to be… difficult.

    What is the trust engine?

    • As member of organized crime, what prevents me from taking a picture of this tree twice? Yes, you solved for this, in theory, but I worry about legitimately bad people who will do harm, at scale, for personal benefit.
    • Worried about how difficult it is to take a “good enough” photo
    • Worried about the infrastructure cost only available to rich North Americans. Requires a drone, smart phone- at least a camera with some metadata layers attached?
    • For the amount of data being generated for each mapping of your acre of corn. It’s a lot of data. However, you could zk-snarks the data size. It’s costly from a transaction time POV, and adds a layer of centralization. But it is amazing magic math magic, that converts any(?) data into a very, very small amount of data.
  34. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments! Some general responses in order of your post …

    1. “Massively inflationary, where does my corn-coin get consumed” - all proof-of-plant tokens expire worthless, just like a plant dies. Think of the tokens like longer-dated options (CDS is even better corollary) that fit either an annual (1-yr term) or perennial (5-yr term? 10-yr?) biology, and roll quarterly or biannually.

    2. Mapping real world data as an on-chain representation" - the goal is less to represent each individual plant on a blockchain (or each individual acreage in the case of grass crops) as it is to represent the human labor of the cultivation of those individual plants and acreages. That doesn’t eliminate the enormous size of the effort here, but it’s a meaningfully smaller enormous effort. Agree that we’re talking about MANY different tokens, each not immediately transferable/fungible into another.

    3. “What is the trust engine?” I think that it’s actually very difficult to spoof this system at scale, but you’re right that it’s impossible to have a mathematically trustless system here like Bitcoin. Particularly since property rights are going to be critical here, each token will have to be associated with a particular nation or bloc like the EU that has enforceable adjudication and the same social understanding of property rights. I think this ends up much more like Wikipedia or a good-enough-trustiness DL, not a BTC blockchain.

    Thanks again for such thoughtful and constructive push-back. Really appreciate this!! - Ben

  35. I finally read this post. I do like the idea of “green crypto” a lot.
    I grew up in a silver mining town, so the Bitcoin mining metaphor seemed pretty apt to me, at least in terms of input (dirty work) and output (wealth).
    In college, I took a class on remote sensing. I remember that agriculture was one of the application areas of high altitude photography and imaging. More recently, I watched a presentation from an engineer at Planet Labs. I believe that they already have a quite nice data set: Precision Agriculture Imaging with Planet Satellite Solutions | Planet
    What’s missing? Probably the classification algorithm (hot dog / not hot dog).

  36. Good evening, Ben -

    I’m new here, and am not sure what route I took from the surface. It’s like a maze of twisty-turny passages all alike; or maybe it’s the maze of twisty-turny passages all different. In any event, I didn’t have enough items to create a trail of crumbs. But, I’m here now, have joined up, and look forward to more Epsilon Theory!

    Proof of Plant (POP) is a marvelous thesis. Perhaps more abstractly, since all the world’s output is not plants, proof of work. But I like the argument.

    Note that I am an engineer, not an econ, or quant, so my language or terminology might seem quaint. I have read Kahnemann, Sapolsky, Penrose, Sunstein, Thaler, Pinker, Duetsch, Diamond, and love the complexities and intricacies of the universe and of biological life. Surprisingly, it sometimes helps in my professional life.

    I never thought about it until your podcast, but ultimately, we as biological beings depend on stored energy sources derived from photosynthesis. To an equal extent, those stored energy sources require nearly every element in the periodic table, mostly as compounds of elements. Oxygen comes to mind as the one which we (and most aerobic) creatures need as the unmixed element. Your thesis that it is the farmer, or more generally, the one who manages/orchestrates things that convert these raw substances into consumable energy sources, the one who can show “proof of plant” is fascinating and, at least, arguably possible, though technically quite challenging.

    There are a lot of single-celled or at least simple organisms that can make or become nutrition. Algae, fungi, stuff. One of my favorite comestibles, beer, seems a combination of the work of a farmer, rancher, and industrial chemist. I tend to prefer your original notion that went a bit beyond that basic POP idea. But, that’s pedantic, at least a bit.

    Let’s run with calling all of those things “crops”, created by farmers. POP would include plants, algal pools, metrics like kg crude protein/carbohydrate/fat per kilo of bulk material. Percentages, like are listed on the bags of feline food fetched just now from the store. But there are the attributes that differentiate one bulk product from another: taste, mouthfeel, smell, etc. Some are more tangible than others, yet all add to the effort to calculate the value of POP for a particular crop. The market seems to be a high-falutin’ barter system, where each of us can check for themselves what the perceived value is of any farmer’s output at any time, but one where the currency is this POP.

    That seems to work for basic nutritional needs. But what about other things of value that are not grown but still created from more basic things? Like pottery? Winding back generations, the potter put their energy/work effort and creativity into creating something like a pot. Maybe that pot was utilitarian, maybe it was ornamental, or maybe it was both. Since it’s a created object, much like that specific hectare of corn or sorghum, it is documentable as a thing of some value, to some group of individuals. For that, POP might be as identifiable as that corn. It defines a product with their labor. I don’t know how to capture easily the required consumption of raw materials and kiln time, but I’m sure there’s an algorithm to suit.

    I’m an engineer. I design ways to manipulate successfully different raw(er) materials to create a more complex, desired output (concrete and steel into buildings and bridges; semiconductors and circuits into smart phones). That seems to create a POP as well. That output is compensated with money, and other tangibles and intangibles. But what if that compensation were replaced with some kind of POP? I can imagine that it’d be challenging to evaluate all the properties that would have to go into establishing that POP.

    As I write, I’m starting to think that it’s going to be really difficult to establish POP except for simple things. I look at the commodities market: a bushel of sweet corn appears to have a value, while the exact quality of that corn could vary within some prescribed limits. There are the “kinda” intangibles that can cause the value of a simple bushel of corn to vary wildly. You made this general point early on. I could grow corn that is boutique, is higher in complex saccharides, more digestible, or has some particularly pleasant qualities. Suddenly the market’s price for a bushel of corn gets fractured in a million subcategories, including whether that corn was sustainable, used pristine mountain-spring water, and what the narrative (the marketing spiel) that goes along with it. Do relatively simple things, available in bulk on the market, suddenly become so differentiable that there’s a different valuation for each one? Mind-blowing.

    I think your concept is tremendously powerful. It requires establishing valuation using many factors perhaps never considered before by the broader market. I’ll stop my blathering for now and post this as is.

    Cheers - Jon in Phoenix AZ

  37. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Welcome to the Pack, @jonadams, and thank you for such a thoughtful post! Have you read Part 2 of this series yet? I think it addresses some of the points you raise here.

  38. @Zenzei Have you read Debt: The First 5000 Years? That book digs into the concept of money and debt. Pretty interesting.

    Cheers - Jon

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