Back in the days before Netflix allowed those lucky enough to have sufficient broadband to stream films and box-sets onto their TVs, laptops and even mobile phones, all at the press of a button, the only way of getting hold of the latest blockbuster for home viewing was by travelling to the local video rental store and hiring a tape for a couple of nights.

While today’s youngsters might view this as only a few steps up from casting hand shadows from the glow of the fire on the cave wall as sabre-tooths prowled outside, I was reminded of the far-off days of video tapes after attending one of the cattle EID meetings which have been taking place around the country.

For as the video revolution got underway two different systems emerged to vie for the public’s hearts, minds and wallets – and the VHS versus Betamax video format war which ensued has been widely viewed as a text-book case in the battle of different systems in emerging technologies.

In case you hadn’t picked it up earlier in the paper, a similar battle could well take place in the cattle electronic ear-tag market.

For as the competing claims of ultra high frequency (UHF) and low frequency (LF) tags are being debated and considered (see Ken Fletcher’s report on page five) it looks like there’s a very real chance that Scotland could be guided down the road towards a UHF-based system which offers better read-range, quicker reading and the ability to store more data – while England might opt for the LF route.

So, without a real push to get some alignment and agreement, we could find that cattle keepers north and south of the Border could, quite literally, be working on different wavelengths.

All very interesting, I hear you say: But what has this got to do with the price of fish or, considerably more to the point for this column, of grain?

Well, while ‘not a lot’ might be the answer, I thought I’d better have a bit of a poke about to see what was happening with the proposals for technological step forward of electronic grain passports – or e-passports – after the idea had gained a good deal of traction a few years ago but was parked up as some sectors of the grain trade had been against it.

While I originally thought that this piece would revolve around the fact that though there are some issues to be overcome, the livestock sector was set to steal a real march on us in the use of electronic gadgetry to back up their traceability credentials, that turned out not to be the case at all. For, lo and behold, it looks like the handbrake has been taken off and things are beginning to roll again on the electronic grain passport front.

To quickly recap on the e-passport story to date, the AHDB actually spent several years and £400,000 researching the use of e-passports and found through the pilot scheme which they ran that the concept offered a whole host of benefits to the industry, for both sellers and buyers.

From the producer’s point of view, knowing the weights and results of quality tests of grain going into the merchant’s, or maltster’s store before another three lorries had been loaded for the same destination could potentially save us thousands of pounds if there were any problems. It could also give growers the chance to contest any unexpected results while samples were still fresh and the grain still in the lorry.

While some grain companies might now be offering faster feedback on the results of loads of grain which have been delivered through their own systems, it would be a good idea to have a national standard to which we all had some input.

From the buyer’s side, an electronic system would offer not only faster data flow but also the ability to offer a far greater degree of transparency and a guarantee of provenance on the produce which they handled. In this day and age, such an advantage is bound to be of value.

But, when it came to the crunch a few years ago, some of the buyers decided that entering whole-heartedly into such a scheme might compromise too much of what they considered to be confidential information and so, despite the huge potential, the idea was quietly shelved.

To be fair, at the time there was probably a bit of reticence from the grower side as well – with some pointing to connectivity issues in the countryside and the ability of farmers and lorry drivers to cope with the technical aspects.

But now, a few years down the line, connectivity is improving slowly in rural areas. We’re all getting more used to coping with the software, programs and apps which now form part of daily life, as well as having had more practice at overcoming any issues as they arise.

A change of mind – or of personnel? – amongst some of the naysayers amongst the millers and some other sectors of the trade now means that the general consensus across the supply chain is that it’s the right direction of travel.

It has to be hoped that we can avoid a clash between different systems and that both trade and producer’s organisations seem to see this as a key factor in developing a universal system for electronic grain passports.

Speaking to the trade body, the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC) this week, the organisation’s policy manager in Scotland, Ian Muirhead, said that his organisation believed a move to e-passports would give a range of benefits across the industry. It would represent a step forward in terms of how data is managed and transferred through the different parts of the supply chain, aiming to compliment the wider move to electronic transfer of data across the whole agricultural sector.

But, he added, that clearly there was a need to ensure that we moved to a system which was easy to integrate across the range of internal IT systems that exist at farm, trade and industry level: “That does not happen overnight and it is important that for any change to be successful we ensure that the whole industry is taken along with the project.”

But while there seems to be a consensus to make haste slowly, there is currently a flurry of activity underway – with the Red Tractor assurance scheme currently involved in a pilot. Though that might be driven more by the obvious deficiencies in their current system, which sees stickers used to validate grain passports, it’s not the only assurance body working on the subject.

Our own SQC – which has long been at the forefront of pushing the idea of e-passports – believed strongly that this route would offer considerable benefits to Scottish growers and it is also set to launch a pilot scheme later in the year. Working with the farm co-operative organisation, SAOS, the intention is to test the merits of a simplified e-passport system which could be built upon as time progressed.

Speaking to SQC executive director, Alistair Ewan, this week, he told me that one benefit of a system being run by his organisation would be the fact that the data generated would still be owned by Scottish producers and they could decide in what way it was used, and harness any inherent value.

But, along with chairman, Andrew Moir, he stressed that whatever sort of system was adopted it would simply have to be compatible and to be able to be fully integrated with a UK-wide system – and if the work being done by SAOS showed that there might be difficulties on this front, the idea could be shelved.

“Unlike the AHDB system, which is all-singing-all-dancing and offers a huge amount but which could prove expensive to implement, we would envisage taking baby steps and building on an e-passport system as time progressed,” said Andrew.

But the pair said that SQC was keeping its options open and while a pilot scheme was likely to be trialled this coming harvest, it could be a year or two before a full-scale system was up and running:

“Unlike cattle EID, where a new system is a necessity as it is a legal requirement, we can continue using the paper system and take enough time to make sure that we get a system which works for everyone,” said Alistair.

So the arable sector isn’t at the coo’s tail after all …