Opinion: How innovation could reduce drudgery of ordering farm inputs

Like most people, I guess, I am a big fan of anything that simplifies my life while simultaneously saving me money.

Which is why I am particularly pleased with the printer I bought a year ago; one that monitors ink levels and, for seemingly far less than I am used to paying, automatically reorders cartridges when the levels look a little low. Zero input from yours truly and 48 hours later, a replacement set arrives in the post.

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The cost of printer ink cartridges has always been a bugbear of mine. Paying a king’s ransom for a parsimonious portion of red or yellow dye always seemed a rip-off, compounded by the fact that every printer ever made seems to have its own bespoke cartridge format.

This means that any retailer, either on the high street or online, invariably has to carry a huge range of products in order to satisfy customer demand; and large inventories of anything are both inefficient and expensive.

So, at a stroke, this innovative and simple idea, an example of what the nerdier among us might refer to as the “internet of things”, has the potential to strip cost out of the supply chain of a global industry, currently valued at over $4bn, creating value and convenience for everyone – apart from possibly Ryman or WH Smith.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see where this kind of innovation could, with a bit of tweaking, be applied across our own industry. It could reduce the drudgery and cost of managing a wide range of inputs, from fuel and oil to animal feed, milking parlour consumables, pesticides and, of course, veterinary medicines.

Vet meds, particularly antibiotics, are justifiably a hot topic at present, and there is an industry-wide need to ensure that we are all acting responsibly if we are to avoid draconian regulatory constraints.

Wider public health challenges and increasing consumer concerns will necessitate greater transparency and assurance of responsible medicine use in the food chain, and technology again holds the key.

Perhaps one of the most exciting opportunities here lies in the potential deployment of “blockchain”, the technology that sits behind crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin.

Blockchain delivers traceability and eliminates the potential for fraud through an encrypted and highly secure online “distributed ledger” of transactions. It provides a visible whole-life record of a product, irrespective of the number of times it changes hands.

Obviously for this to work in agriculture requires a not inconsiderable level of co-operation and buy-in from multiple stakeholders, to ensure effective integration into current on-farm practice. That will undoubtedly raise a myriad of objections from those determined to resist any change to the status quo.

But a blockchain-enabled medicine supply chain, combined with electronic animal ID and herd health recording which could relatively easily be linked to retailers via abattoirs and processors, has the potential to demonstrate industry-wide best practice and provide supply chain assurance, while improving operational efficiency and reducing costs.

This is the sort of technology-enabled, post-Brexit agriculture that would deliver value to all stakeholders and warrants serious consideration when the powers that be sit down to decide where limited resources for farm support might be best deployed in the future.

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