It has become a fact of life nothing happens now without a piece of paper.
The comfort blanket for many industries, that reassuring piece of paper which means if something goes wrong, ‘it’s not my fault boss, here’s the documentation’. No cattle or grain can move off this farm without a completed passport and in ‘belt and braces’ tradition it must be validated and adorned with an assurance sticker.
Developments in technology, electronic communications and data transfer led to discussions by the Cereal Liaison Group (CLG), an industry group representing the cereals and oilseeds supply chain, into the possibilities of creating an electronic grain passport system which could meet future data requirements, improve the two-way flow of information through the grain chain and enhance crop assurance.
As a producer the current system is straightforward and almost cost free. My merchant supplies blank passports with the grain contract I duly complete for each load.
My biggest challenges are remembering to attach an in date assurance sticker and, with passports conveniently constrained to one side of A4, being able to read the ever reducing font size and write small enough to complete the necessary information. With my eyesight diminishing with age and my handwriting becoming less legible I can see some benefits.
AHDB Cereals and Oilseeds, which facilitates the CLG forum, undertook a feasibility study on behalf of the industry to examine the possibilities for a move from a paper passport to an electronic platform.
Working with representatives of farmers, merchants, hauliers, processors and off-farm stores a pilot project was developed to trial the system in the milling and malting sectors.
Over a 12-month period in 2014-15 199 loads were tested in the pilot project to ensure the hardware, software and electronic portals could accommodate the complexities encountered in the supply chain. An ‘app’ was developed so the system could operate in areas with no internet or limited data connection capabilities.
The final report has been published and the project put out to the industry for consultation (www.nfuonline.com/egrain) on whether to switch to an electronic grain passport.
The report gives detailed information for initial one-off costs and ongoing running costs and attributes savings generated to each sector of the grain chain. Encouragingly, the report highlights farmers have the greatest potential saving per load, but much of the benefit appears to be from notional costs rather than hard cash.
With estimated one-off system development costs of £594,000 and an annual running cost estimated at £414,000, growers will demand tangible benefits for their share of the cost; for many that means a full exchange of data in real-time of grain weights delivered and full analytical and quality data.
This will allow producers to monitor deliveries, make informed decisions to meet market demands and improve business efficiency.
Other sectors are already ahead of the grain trade in this respect. My cattle buyer has been sending, electronically, full carcase grading details and weights, often within five hours of cattle being loaded on-farm.
The AHDB project has developed a system which will work. But the consultation raises important questions the industry must address.
How will the system be financed and what proportion should fall on each part of the chain? If adopted who should hold ownership and governance of the system? Use of and access to data collected will require detailed consideration; it will be a valuable resource which with appropriate stakeholder agreement and control could be realised.
In reality electronic grain passports are more about when rather than if. The consultation gives us all an opportunity to influence the outcome and closes on September 16, 2016.