Automation in Agriculture Testing Laboratories to Meet Regulatory, Reporting Requirements

Lab Automation in Agriculture

September 24, 2019

The agricultural market is one of the fastest rising industries globally, with a projected growth of USD 6.29 billion by 2022. This growth is mainly attributed to the increasing demand for food and outbreaks of food-related illnesses, that puts safety regulations on the forefront in agriculture testing laboratories.

One of the major challenges faced by agriculture testing laboratories involves meeting the various regulatory compliance requirements set by global governing bodies such as ISO standards, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), etc. This is directly related to the safety regulations followed by the laboratories, as well as the reporting regulations to ensure proper data representation. Another mounting concern lies in the fast growth of the industry and a resulting increase in data generated for analysis and management.

An effective counter to meeting regulatory requirements, especially in the face of massive data generation, is the introduction of an automated system, like a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) that cannot only automate data handling but also streamline data reporting. Additionally, modern LIMS are well equipped with handling complex calculations associated with various agricultural testing protocols. Here's a look at the major roadblocks and their solutions.

Key Regulatory Challenges

Some of the key regulatory and reporting challenges faced by agricultural laboratories include:

1. Cost of implementation of regulatory measures.

2. Maintenance of traceability and integrity of the laboratory data.

3. Standardization of reporting formats.

4. Standardization of the laboratory's operations and processes to meet global standards.

5. Addressing the regulatory requirements of the different operations of the laboratory.

Problem-solving with Laboratory Automation

One of the first questions asked by laboratories globally is: why do we need automation? Laboratories have been using paper-based and manual reporting for long and are often set and comfortable in their ways. The answer, however, lies in the question itself. Laboratory automation brings about a huge shift in the time taken to complete and record a process, at the same time, increasing the accuracy of results. Weighing automation as an answer to some of the challenges posed above:

1. Automation cuts cost associated with manual intervention, thus bringing about an overall reduction in the cost of implementation and operation.

2. Automated systems, like a LIMS, come with specific functionalities that allow easy traceability, thus preserving data integrity. Also, data access can be monitored based on the agricultural lab's internal hierarchy.

3. With automation in place, time invested in manual data entry and maintenance is reduced, thus enabling the lab personnel to invest more time in value-addition and decision making to meet research and testing demands more efficiently.

4. Automation of reports enables creating multiple reporting templates in adherence to different regulatory standards. This not only makes regulatory compliance easier but also saves time and increases efficiency and helps present data in a regulated and easy to access manner. Automated templates make reporting easy both for the lab as well as the clients, who also have an easier time accessing and understanding the reports. Another major benefit is that automated templates eliminate the risk of manual errors that might occur during reporting.

5. Automation limits data entry and management, thus reducing overall human error. Additionally, by bringing in an automated system that allows the integration of instruments for an easy data flow, agricultural testing laboratories can achieve an exponential increase in data throughput capacity.

6. Automated systems, like a agriculture LIMS, streamline the standard workflow and operational processes in the laboratories, thereby facilitating compliance.

7. With data being available in an organized, easily accessible manner, the gap between the different operational units of the laboratory is easily bridged. Each section can easily upload and access data, as and when required, thus saving time and limiting procedural errors.

Conclusion

Automated systems such as LIMS, not only simplify data management but also help with several other aspects of laboratory management including audit, quality control, staff training, etc. With the advent of Cloud technology, acquiring a LIMS is no more restricted to big laboratories. Agricultural laboratories, irrespective of size, can enroll for a cloud system that enable easy management of data. These systems are flexible, configure, can handle diverse data, including feed testing, soil testing, microbe monitoring, pesticide, fertilizer, GMO testing etc. Such systems can generate reports for analytes that are within and outside of the optimal range for easy data visualization and interpretation.

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