WE KEEP hearing that agriculture is on the cusp of huge, revolutionary change – and that things will never quite be the same again.

This newspaper is old enough to know that there have been many such pivotal moments in our 128-year-old history. From the discovery that guano was a great fertiliser, to the introduction of the tractor and artificial insemination (AI) of livestock to speed up genetic improvement, it has been an industry that has embraced change.

Where we stand now, though, is on the verge of another AI revolution. This time it’s Artificial Intelligence that will drive almost every sector and it’s hard to comprehend that such a broad brush will make such exacting and tiny changes across an entire industry.

So, we are at an important intersection that is very real and highly important for the long term future. But – and it is a huge but – this has such vast potential that is in danger of being wasted because we cannot see the wood for the trees. The potential benefits of AI (the intelligent one) and how it is applied could well be lost without proper direction and targetting of its uses.

This highlights a need for pure research, not just into what AI is, but also into what we want from all this data in a highly targeted way. London taxi drivers without the ‘knowledge’ can take you on a long and expensive route – as some farmers will remember from Royal Smithfield days! – but those who have passed the ‘knowledge’ exam can take short cuts, getting more journeys in and gaining more profit. We need the knowledge base that will take us on those shortcuts.

Scotland is in a fairly unique position in all of this. We have world class research facilities that have the ability to see through the data fog to the stark reality of proper Blue Sky thinking. It’s going to be needed. But to jump-start it, we need a consensus of people with visionary thinking in government to fund it and so once the forthcoming Scottish election is over, it must be made a priority.

There are two stories within this issue that highlight the need for clear and targeted application of Blue Sky thinking. One is John Elliot jnr’s financing of his own feed efficiency trials, to highlight it as a breeding trait, the results of which have implications for every livestock farmer. It’s also one which could mark a turning point for industry efforts to counter the stigma that beef farming is a ‘Big Bad Thing’ for the environment. It is not, and efforts such as this can help prove it.

The other clear vision is highlighted by James Porter on this page. We need to be able to use modern breeding techniques to make plants that are healthier, less prone to disease and pestilence, and able to produce two ears of corn where one grew before – but with much fewer inputs. The gross commercialisation of GM crops in an earlier era by Monsanto gave the process a bad name.

That’s where the pure research, without fear or favour should come into it. It should be done for the greater good and not just for profit. So, ScotGov, ‘we have an industry barely alive ... but ladies and gentlemen, we can rebuild it. We have the technology.’ It’s just gonna take a bit more than 6 million dollars!