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

"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.

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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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