A GROUP of six Scottish oat growers are working together on a new form of foodstuff assurance that could help protect quality premiums – and tip some power back towards primary producers.

The farmers 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 every step and process in the supply chain, and be completely sure that what they are eating is 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 last week, and promises to provide a blueprint for how producers might accurately share the origin of other foods with consumers.

Oats are naturally gluten free but are often processed in factories that may contain contaminants such as wheat or barley. Permitted gluten levels in the UK are 20 parts per million, but in the rest of the world it’s limited to five or less – as such, the levels in oats coming out of mixed grain facilities can trigger an auto-immune response in people with Coeliac disease or severe gluten allergies.

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. The families are building an entirely separate oat processing mill, so they can further guarantee a premium for their gluten-free oats ¬- and the block-chain assurance is a way of ensuring they see the benefit of that investment.

“Our simple idea is that someone will be able to pick up a packet of oats in the supermarket, scan a QR code, and see a whole dashboard of information tracing the oats’ journey from farm to shelf,” said Andrew Booth. “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.”

The RISS 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,” said Mr Booth.

Iona Murray, marketing manager of Wallet Services, said: “We’re pretty excited about this. 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.”

She explained the concept of a digital ‘blockchain’: “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.”

SAC Consulting food and drink consultant Paul Mayfield acted as group facilitator, connecting the farmers with the tech company and helping them work together.

“With this system we could offer consumers absolute assurance and maintain the premium for farmers,” agreed Mr 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.”

For in-depth news and views on Scottish agriculture, see this Friday’s issue of The Scottish Farmer or visit www.thescottishfarmer.co.uk