Weave together anarchistic philosophy, the cryptocurrency mining process and open-source technology, and there lays a solution for sustainable agriculture.
By Inbar Preiss
This story is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network LEDE Fellowship.
At the window of Bistro Cafe, in the Letná district in Prague, Czech Republic, a laddering row of pipes with green leaves can be spotted sprouting out of them. The restaurant’s kitchen boasts of fresh lettuce and herbs grown organically, sustainably, and locally.
The pipes form the structure of the cafe’s hydroponics, a method of growing crops using nutrient-enriched water instead of soil, which also completes the place’s trendy, industrial aesthetic. But there’s more to this than being a design piece. It also represents an initiative that weaves together the optimisation of the cryptocurrency mining process and open-source technology, while harking back to the anarchic philosophy of the Czech dissidence movement of the 1970s.
This hydroponic structure in the cafe is one of the creations of Parallel Garden, a Czech-based initiative whose goal is to focus on the scalability of solutions towards sustainable agriculture. By using an interconnected device network, or IoT (Internet-of-Things), the inputs required for the crops, like light and water, are measured and deployed with high accuracy so that waste is mitigated.
Another set of young lettuces growing in a box beneath LED lights can be found closeby at Bitcoin Coffee, which belongs to the crypto-anarchist hub and organization named Paralelní Polis. This is also where Parallel Garden has found its home. Paralelní Polis, which means “Parallel City” in Greek, is a socio-political concept that stands for freedom and independence from state control, resonant of the early cypherpunk movement of the late 1980s.
The cypherpunk movement advocates the use of cryptography and technologies supporting privacy for political means. It has been argued that this has resulted in the creation of Bitcoin and many of the subsequent cryptocurrencies. These cryptocurrencies rely on cryptographic and decentralized technology, such as blockchain, to create an economic system parallel to today’s traditional financial markets. Since 2009, when Bitcoin was released into the world, thousands of other cryptocurrencies have emerged.
The fact that one or two cafes in Prague are serving home-grown lettuce in a hydroponic pipe system optimized by IoT technology, inspired politically and philosophically by the cyberpunk movement, sounds impressive but its impact in Czech society has been low.
These projects by Parallel Garden — founded by blockchain-solutions lawyer Radim Kozub, entrepreneur and cryptocurrency miner Michal Zatřepálek, and agricultural technologies specialist Jakub Hamata — aim to take practical actions to respond to the issues on natural resources and the environment. However, the missing key element, the founders say, is scalability.
On a bigger scale, this project could have a much higher impact on food production and its move to reduce waste. Each step is accompanied by programming, testing, prototyping, optimising and perfecting a model that can be scaled to support a greater output that affects a wider population.
With every step, Parallel Garden shares its knowledge with the community, which in turn provides feedback for further development. Once the small-scale production is perfected, only then is it ready to be scaled up. If the project was to reach the levels it hopes to achieve, it could have a positive impact on the quality of the environment, the utilisation of natural resources, and the increase in local food production.
We want to discuss what is going on, even if something does not go as well as we would like it to. But we want to share it and spread the ideas and best practices as much as possible.
This initiative is a reaction to the unsustainable food production practices, as well as the harsh criticisms the digital crypto-economy has received for its guzzling energy consumption.
It aims to recycle the heat produced from mining cryptocurrencies for maintaining a rooftop greenhouse, with a broader vision to create a reconstructable, self-sustaining, hydroponic crop production technique that optimises energy and resource consumption. By keeping a record of best practices and optimal measurements, the data can then be shared to whoever wants to use it.
The organisation’s manifesto states: “Parallel Garden shares its knowledge with the community, which provides feedback for further development. It aims for the increment of independence on monopolised resources.” And today, the community has around 30 regulars who join the meetings. There are also several local restaurants that are interested in implementing their own “parallel garden”.
The state of agriculture in Czech Republic
Unsustainable mainstream practices contribute to the dire state of agriculture. Nationally, there is huge pressure to maximise the yield of individual production units, to ensure the cost of the product is as low as possible. Large monoculture units that are easily maintained by vast machinery, industrial fertilizers, and pesticides are at the forefront, in an attempt to increase production.
Farmers avoid the rest periods for the field and they also regenerate the amount of organic matter within the soil. As a result, both the immediate and the broader environment is damaged, with vast amounts of degraded soils losing the ability to hold water. With the use of excessive chemicals, the underground water is getting contaminated as well.
The Czech Hydrometeorological Institute showed that 40 percent of the representative freshwater springs had high levels of contamination from pesticides. The climate crisis only worsens the conditions of these resources, with the increasing frequency of droughts. If agriculture continues its exhaustive methods with its intensive input, there is a danger of an ecosystem collapse.
Governmental policies play a big role in the agricultural sector through its regulations, subsidies, and influence on corporations. In Czech Republic, the subsidies for farmers are monopolised by large corporations, strengthening their position in the market and putting smaller businesses at risk.
In the country, Agrofert is the largest Czech conglomerate corporation which operates in the sectors of agriculture, food production, related chemical production, forestry, energy production as well as mass media. It was founded by the country’s Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and is owned by his family and lawyers. He has been accused of misusing subsidies, and yet he is yet to face any significant consequences.
“There are farmers who are aware of the problem and are feeling nervous,” says Parallel Garden founder and agricultural technologies specialist Jakub Hamata. “They are relying on their lands which makes them even more vulnerable. Many of them remember the time when their lands were taken away by the communists, and it can happen even today through the processes of the rotten market setup, but fully legally.”
Small farmers are paying taxes straight into Agrofert, which in turn, will out-run them or adversely change the legislation for their business. Jakub explains that farmers have reached out to their team at Parallel Garden, asking to explore innovative technologies, like growing crops without land, to find “new ways to become more resistant to such pressures”.
The high demands of cryptocurrency mining
Within and beyond the borders of Czech Republic, a cryptocurrency revolution is well underway. Over the past decade, Bitcoin and thousands of other cryptocurrencies that have consequently sprouted offered an alternative economy to the traditional world of finance. In terms of sustainability, however, this cryptographic economic system has its criticisms due to its high energy usage.
At the foundation of many (but not all) of these digital currencies is a process called “mining”. Advanced and specialized computers are used to solve algorithmic problems that allow for the production of the coin as well as support the transactions that take place on the network.
The term “mining” allegorises this process of excavation of precious, scarce resources, such as gold, from the ground. Instead of digging into the earth to find valuable commodities, cryptocurrency mining puts a high amount of energy to solve the algorithms. Essentially, every action made on the currency’s blockchain is converted into energy consumption by computers known as miners.
According to the Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index, Bitcoin’s annual carbon footprint is comparable to the whole nation of New Zealand. Nature’s report from 2018 gives a rough estimate that from 2016 to 2018, Bitcoin mining alone produced an estimated 3 million to 13 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. That’s equivalent to the carbon dioxide produced by about 1 million cars.
This still makes up for less than 0.01% of global emissions, as the cryptocurrency economy is still in its infancy. However, with blockchain technologies and digital currencies being taken increasingly seriously, this figure is bound to increase in the upcoming years.
Nations such as Iran, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe have either explicitly announced their support for the use of cryptocurrencies by their citizens, or have used them as a solution to political-economic turmoil. With these kinds of developments on the horizon, the net global energy consumption by cryptocurrencies is bound to rise to new heights.
Taking parallel action
The national and global threats owing to unsustainable agricultural practices, together with the carbon footprint resulting from cryptocurrency maintenance, is a problem that can be approached in multiple ways.
Blockchain-solutions-focused attorney Radim Kozub, also one of the Parallel Garden founders, sees three pathways to approach this problem. First, the reformative approach, which would involve voting for a green party to be elected in your local or national parliament to represent and advocate sustainable practices. Second, the radical approach, which could mean protesting against establishments, for instance, by joining the Extinction Rebellion movement.
Third, the parallel approach, in which you work on your own solution to the problem. This way, you are not demanding a solution (like the radical), not forcing a solution (like the reformative), you are simply creating it.
“Of course you’re not creating the global solution for the whole world right away,” Radim explains. “But you create it, and you have the chance to test it, to iterate it and first find out if this solution works on a small scale level. The advantage is that mistakes are cheaper and this is a solution which is independent from power structures.”
If the tests are successful at the small scale level, it can be scaled and slowly adopted. The public can later adjust to the better or more efficient idea that solves the issue at hand. The idea for a parallel approach was developed by a dissident community who refused to submit to authoritarian state power in the 1970s Czech Republic.
To preserve their freedom, they established parallel structures for education (teaching critical thinking to counter ideological indoctrination), economy (based on peer-to-peer exchange of goods), information systems (samizdat and unofficial periodicals), and culture (an illegal underground scene).
The social phenomenon featured in an essay titled Parallel Polis, written by philosopher Vaclav Benda in 1978, remains relevant today in the construction of independent systems. It is in these principles that Paralelní Polis and Parallel Garden are rooted.
Technology for resource optimisation
To stay true to independent systems and tackle unsustainable agriculture methods, the team developed a hydroponics system based on IoT automatisation.
IoT refers to a series of computers that communicate with each other through the Internet. For the hydroponics system, IoT is essential for data measuring and storage control of the different elements in real-time. In a fully functioning system, the IoT device monitors and controls the different elements, such as the water pump and the lights. It is able to measure the amount of sunlight coming from outside and in real-time control the electricity consumption of the lighting system. The same thing goes for water.
A collection of computers measure various conditions of the plants, making up the IoT network. For example, a device connected to the IoT network controls the amount of water that is dripped during irrigation, based on the measurement of another application which measures the moisture of the substrate in which the plants are rooted.
We believe that blockchain technology has significant potential to help society to achieve more individual freedom, justice and sustainability.
Jakub explains that they are “developing automation that can control the consumption of resources in real-time, with the accuracy that a human can’t achieve. Also, this is done for a reasonable price, it is part of the steps of the circuit.” After the optimal measurements have been tested and recorded for the plants’ growing conditions, the data is passed on to the next case, where the IoT devices will no longer be necessary.
The first hydroponic box that was built in Bitcoin Coffee laid the foundation for the IoT system that runs the automation. The box serves as a reservoir for the water and nutrients, and there is a pump which brings the solution through a drip-irrigation system. The excess water is collected in the box and keeps circulating. In the latest design of the vertical installation which is found in Bistro, the system works a bit differently.
The plants grow with the roots in water at a stable level in the channel created by the pipe. At the bottom of the installation is a reservoir from which water is pumped up and then trickles back down. As a result, the team knows exactly what is inside the system, and 97% of water consumption is saved in comparison to soil-grown plants. The significance of automation is not only in the reduction of manpower but in the conservation of important natural resources.
The path to a closed circuit
To create a closed circuit, Parallel Garden offers distinct steps. First is to work with hydroponic agriculture, which minimises input resources and optimised by measurements of IoT devices. Second is to use a “crypto-boiler”, or a heating mechanism, which utilises the residual heat of cryptocurrency miners.
Radim explains: “Regarding the inputs, we are developing a smart mining solution. From this perspective, Parallel Garden is a project that develops smart agricultural solutions with the possible implementation of residual heat from mining.”
A container filled with the specialized cryptocurrency mining computers, known as ASIC (Application-Specific Integrated Circuit), would generate the heat for the greenhouse residuals. The final element is the optimisation of cryptocurrency mining in itself, by mining more flexibly to coordinate with the duration in which electricity is in low demand and therefore cheaper. The interactions between every element need to be prototyped and tested to find out what works and what the most sustainable economic model is.
One of the challenges of this plan is to collect enough hardware for mining to generate heat. Each computer is very expensive and even old miners are hard to find for prices reasonable for this project. Radim mentions another challenging point for this project: Parallel Garden is operating without any support from any central entity, especially the government or any other public budget.
Radim also points out that with a non-hierarchical community structure based on voluntary relationships, which are characteristic of the crypto-anarchist approach, it can still be difficult to take on enough time and responsibility to take effective steps forward.
An essential feature of this project is its inherent transparency through the use of open-source software. With all the experiences, best-practices, programming and other know-how recorded and shared, anyone can start their own Parallel Garden.
“If we use open-source and open communication, we can show others what we are doing. We communicate about everything we use and the quantities, unlike the monopolies who don’t communicate anything about their methods,” says cryptocurrency miner Michal Zatřepálek.
“We want to discuss what is going on, even if something does not go as well as we would like it to. But we want to share it and spread the ideas and best practices as much as possible.”
With all the information readily available, when someone has the data on how to be profitable, you can scale the project and adjust the input, and everyone can learn from it. For this, open-source protocols serve as a community and peer-to-peer learning tool. “The accurate feedback on the effect of our actions was substantial to us,” Jakub explains, “and so we refused state-based financial sources and emphasised on the peer-to-peer relation.”
Parallel Garden makes sure that people are provided with all the information on Github, as well as through updates on social media. For a more direct approach, the team started the enviro-meetup every other week at Paralelní Polis which has brought together a strong community.
The aim is to share the idea so others can start growing their own crops, speak to experts, learn from each other, and make people aware of the responsibility of ethical food production. The technology for hydroponics exists and is being used around the world but rarely is there so much transparent information about it. One reason the installations are located in exposed areas like cafes is in order to better communicate the technology with the public.
The relevance today
In 2018, the project originally began by questioning how to utilise the heat from mining and servers, as a reaction to the unsustainable food production practices, as well as the harsh criticisms the digital crypto-economy has received for its guzzling energy consumption. Parallel Garden is now expanding to other cities, with community centres in Bratislava and Barcelona.
“We believe that blockchain technology has significant potential to help society to achieve more individual freedom, justice and sustainability,” says Radim. “However, the technology can only sustainably work if it’s highly effective, both ecologically and economically. It can be only done by optimisation of technological inputs (electricity, hardware, software and mining process itself) as well as utilisation of outputs (mined cryptocurrencies and residual heat).
Imagine a hydroponic greenhouse heated by the residual heat from crypto-mining where the electricity for mining as well as for lights and other electronic devices is produced from renewable resources.”
Most people believe that change can only happen all at once through big, dramatic actions made by public or private institutions. By starting small and local, a project can focus on the technology and sustainability model before scaling up. This is contrary to the standard start-up approach, where the project seeks as much funding as possible to scale up at the quickest possible time.
With a Green New Deal on the international political menu, the trio believes that the EU will soon see large amounts of funding for sustainability facilitated through technology, where systems like those developed by Parallel Garden can flourish.
“It is easier to make big-scale mistakes in this approach, wasting money and resources along the way,” says Radim, reflecting on his experience as a legal consultant.
“With the hydroponics system, container and mining system, when the system is working well, we get our share. If it does not go well, it is reflected, so mistakes are fixed more effectively. The core of the idea is to develop something functional that works first because that is the only instrument that can lead to the change.”
Inbar Preiss is a journalist who has been reporting on the impact of the blockchain and cryptocurrency industry since 2016. She is currently an editor at Are We Europe, involved in topics such as politics, culture and identity.