Six farmers in north-east Scotland are working with SAC Consulting and a data company to develop distributed ledger, or blockchain, technology that will allow shoppers to trace their oats right back along the supply chain and be completely sure they are gluten-free.
The project, overseen by the Soil Association Scotland-led Rural Innovation Support Service, was awarded £97, 466 of the Scottish Government’s Knowledge Transfer and Innovation Fund (KTIF) last week for the project, which could provide a blueprint to accurately and openly trace the origin of other foods.
Arable farmers the Booth family of Savock Farms, Newburgh, produce 1500 tonnes of oats a year alongside fellow group member the Russells of Dams of Craigie Farm, Whitecairns. As well as working together in the RISS group, the families also building an oat processing mill, so they can further guarantee a premium for their gluten-free oats. Oats are naturally gluten free but are often processed in factories that may contain contaminants such as wheat or barley.
“Our simple idea is that someone will be able to pick up a packet of oats in the supermarket,” says Andrew Booth, “scan a QR code, and see a whole dashboard of information tracing the oats’ journey from farm to shelf. As farmers we want to produce something the customer wants. Food scares have focussed people’s minds, and consumers with Coeliac have a limited selection, although the majority of people buying gluten-free are making a lifestyle choice. We want to be able to keep offering a premium for gluten-free oats in the supply chain.”
Permitted gluten levels in the UK are 20 parts per million, but in the rest of the world it’s five or less, and UK levels can trigger an auto-immune response in people with Coeliac disease or severe gluten allergies.
The farmers are already recording various processes and actions at field level, from shed-cleaning to crop-spraying and harvesting, but often on paper. The platform being developed by Edinburgh-based distributed ledger company Wallet Services will enable them to digitise that data and make it available for anyone who needs to see it. “It’ll make recording simpler and in real time,” says Booth.
“We’re pretty excited about this,” says Iona Murray, marketing manager of Wallet Services. “We’re interested in the agricultural sector, with the rise of food allergies, veganism and interest in food standards. Once we establish this proof of concept, it will offer opportunities to assure the quality of different end products.”
Like a car is a vehicle, blockchain is a kind of distributed ledger, she explains.
“Distributed ledger means multiple organisations can track and trace the exchange of data. It allows the data to exist outwith any one database, and be accessed by the people who need to see it. And the data is tamper-proof so we know it can be trusted.”
As the group facilitator Paul Mayfield, a food and drink consultant with SAC Consulting, connected the farmers with the tech company and helped them work together. “For some things you need a team,” says Andrew Booth.
“Paul organised conference calls with Hannah from Wallet Services that I took from the combine. The KTIF money now enables us to take the blockhain beyond our mill to the processor and eventually the supermarket.”
“With this system we could offer consumers absolute assurance and maintain the premium for farmers,” agrees Mayfield.
“We are currently bringing in processors to complete the supply chain, which would then be transparent at the click of a button. If we can do it for oats we could ensure the same traceability for potatoes, or soft fruit, organic produce or anything we like. And it tilts some power in the supply chain back towards the producers.”
The Rural Innovation Support Services connects farmers and crofters with the right people to help them develop a viable, innovative project. Part of Scottish Rural Network, it is led by Soil Association Scotland in partnership with farmer co-op organisation SAOS, SAC Consulting, part of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), Scotland Food & Drink and the Innovative Farmers network.