• Digitalisation of the agrifood sector: what does Twitter tell us?


    Technology is advancing at a frenetic pace and offers the agrifood chain a large number of opportunities to make its production more efficient and sustainable. Moreover, the arrival of COVID-19 has shown that the most digitalised companies were able to continue their activities more readily than the rest. In this article we examine the degree of popularity of the different digital technologies used in the primary sector and agrifood industry based on a text analysis of over 2 million tweets on Twitter. All these technologies are essential to create a connected ecosystem that will make up the Food Chain 4.0 of the future.



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    The unexpected arrival of the pandemic has shown that the most digitalised companies were more prepared to adapt to the new situation and were able to continue to operate much more smoothly than the rest. There is no doubt that, in this new environment, the digital transformation of companies is now unavoidable in order to boost their competitiveness.

    Big data, robotics, the internet of things and blockchain are just some examples of the new digital technologies gradually being adapted by firms, particularly in the agrifood sector. Technology is advancing at a frenetic pace and is offering the agrifood chain a large number of opportunities to produce more efficiently and sustainably. However, statistical information on the degree to which such technologies have been taken up, and the most comprehensive official statistical source1, does not provide information on the primary sector. Below we present a novel analysis of the «popularity»  of new digital technologies in the agrifood sector based on data from Twitter.

    • 1. Survey on the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) and e-commerce in companies, compiled by the National Statistics Institute.
    Twitter as a source of information to detect future trends

    Data from Twitter can be extremely valuable in detecting new trends as it allows us to analyse the popularity of certain terms according to how frequently they appear in tweets. However, it is true that «talking about something» is not the same as successfully implementing the various digital technologies in a company's recurring operations. For this reason the results presented below should be interpreted simply as an indication of new trends that may be taking root in agrifood companies.

    Data from Twitter allow us to analyse how popular the different digital technologies

    are in the agrifood sector according to how often they are mentioned in tweets.

    For this study, data was processed from over 24 million tweets sent by individual users and digital media during the period 2017-2019. Among these, 2 million corresponded to the agrifood sector. Using natural language processing techniques, the tweets were categorised according to mentions of different digital technologies and to the business sector.2 The key to obtaining relevant data from social media is to first define «seed» words or phrases to identify texts corresponding to each of the business sectors, as well as «seed» words or phrases related to the different digital technologies of interest.3 Using a machine-learning algorithm, other words and phrases related to the concept in question that were not initially included were also identified, thus broadening the spectrum of texts analysed. At this stage, it is important to carefully screen for polysemous words (i.e. those that have more than one meaning, such as the word «reserva» in Spanish, which can be used to refer to a hotel booking as well as an aged wine).

    • 2. This analysis was carried out in collaboration with Citibeats, a company specialising in unstructured natural language processing.
    • 3. For example, the «seed» woods and phrases used to identify big data were: analytics, arquitectura de sistemas (system architecture), data mining, database, inteligencia empresarial (business intelligence), Python and SQL, among others (as well as the term big data per se).
    What is the degree of digitalisation of the agrifood sector according to Twitter?

    To assess the agrifood sector's degree of digitalisation according to data from Twitter, we first need to know how common tweets about digitalisation are in other business sectors. The most digitalised industry according to our analysis is the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector: 3.2% of the sector's tweets contain terms related to digitalisation, a result that is not surprising given the very nature of the industry. Next comes finance and insurance with 2.7% of the tweets.

    This percentage is obviously lower in the primary sector at 0.6% but it is similar to the 0.7% for professional, scientific and technical activities. In the case of the agrifood industry, the percentage of tweets on digitalisation is only 0.3%, very close to the basic manufacturing sector (which includes the textile, wood, paper and graphic arts industries), with the lowest percentage among the sectors analysed, 0.2%.

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    Which digital technologies are most popular in the agrifood sector according to Twitter?

    The wealth of data obtained from Twitter allow us to identify the most popular digital tools in each business sector according to how frequently they are mentioned in the tweets examined. According to our analysis, a large proportion of the primary sector's tweets about digitalisation tend to include issues related to big data (45% of all tweets about digitalisation). One clear example of the application of big data in the sector can be found in «precision agriculture» techniques which require large amounts of data to be analysed to optimise decisions and thereby increase production and, in turn, ensure sustainability. These techniques are used, for instance, to calculate the irrigation requirements of crops by taking into account climatic conditions (sunlight, wind, temperature and relative humidity) and crop characteristics (species, state of development, planting density, etc.). To carry out this calculation, real-time updated meteorological data, a large computing capacity and fast data transmission speeds are all required for an automatic irrigation system to be properly adjusted. This technology helps to use water more efficiently, a highly relevant aspect in areas with a Mediterranean climate that are extremely vulnerable to climate change and where water is in short supply.

    Big data, the internet of things and robotics are the most popular technologies in the primary sector,

    indispensable for advancing the application of precision agriculture techniques and smart automated farming.

    Other popular technologies in the primary sector are the internet of things (16% of tweets) and robotics, including drones (10% of tweets). The new digital technologies promise to revolutionise the field of agriculture and stockbreeding by the middle of this century, the same as the mechanisation of farming in the xxi century. Agricultural Machinery 4.0 (which is closer to the robots in science fiction films than to the tractors we are used to seeing on all farms in the country) helps to increase productivity whilst also improving working conditions in the field. This trend towards more automated agricultural tasks has become stronger in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, as the difficulty in recruiting seasonal workers due to international mobility restrictions has led to increased interest in robotics and agricultural automation. In fact, companies that manufacture robots for agriculture have seen a sharp increase in orders, such as robots that pick strawberries while removing mould with ultraviolet light.14 

    The use of drones warrants particular attention as this has grown exponentially in recent years and applications are increasingly widespread: from the early detection of pests and the aerial inspection of large areas of crops to locating wild boar with heat-sensitive cameras to prevent the spread of African swine fever to domestic pigs.5

    • 4. See Financial Times Agritech «Farm robots given Covid-19 boost», 30 August 2020.
    • 5. See http://www.catedragrobank.udl.cat/es/actualidad/drones-contra-jabalies

    The popularity of various digital technologies in the agrifood sector

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    Blockchain is the technology that stands out most in the food sector (30% of the total number of tweets on the sector's digitalisation) and this comes as no surprise as it has many different applications for the food and beverage industry. Producing a chain of unalterable, reliable records, blockchain makes it possible to guarantee the complete traceability of products throughout all the links in the food chain. Simply scanning a QR code provides access to all the data regarding the origin, production method, veterinary treatments received, ingredients used, etc. A large number of agrifood companies are already experimenting with blockchain as it offers clear benefits in terms of transparency regarding origin, product quality and food safety, aspects that are increasingly valued by consumers. Blockchain technology is also being used to limit food waste, another essential challenge for the sector.

    Blockchain enables the digital verification of food products,

    making them traceable throughout the links in the food chain.

    Compared with other sectors, which tools are particularly significant for the agrifood industry?

    There are some digital technologies that are not very popular across all economic sectors, perhaps because they have a more limited or specific range of application. These are technologies that, despite having a low percentage of tweets in absolute terms according to our study, may be relatively popular for a particular sector compared with the rest.

    To detect such cases, we have calculated a new metric, namely a concentration index which takes into account the relative popularity of technologies in a sector compared with the rest of the sectors.6 By using this methodology, we have found that the primary sector continues to stand out in terms of big data. Specifically, the primary sector concentrates 9.2% of the total number of tweets mentioning big data made by all sectors, a much larger proportion than the 3.1% share of primary sector tweets out of the total number of tweets analysed (as can be seen in the following table, in this case the concentration index is 3). We have also determined that the sector is particularly interested in the internet of things, as already mentioned, but have discovered that nanotechnology is also a relatively popular technology in the primary sector. In other words, although only 3.8% of the tweets in the primary sector deal with nanotechnology, this percentage is high compared with the 1.7% share of nanotechnology tweets out of the total (in other words, this technology is not very popular in general across all sectors but is slightly more popular in the primary sector than the others). This find is not surprising since genetic engineering is one of the fields in which technology has advanced most in order to boost crop yields. For example, by optimising the yield of vines it is possible to develop plants that are much more resistant to extreme weather conditions and pests.

    • 6. The concentration index is calculated as the ratio between (1) the percentage of tweets related to a particular technology and sector out of the total tweets for this technology, and (2) the percentage of tweets by a sector out of the total tweets of all sectors. Values above 1 indicate the technology is relatively more popular in that sector.

    Concentration index for tweets related to each technology in comparison with the other sectors

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    Finally, virtual and augmented reality is also a relatively popular technology in
    the agrifood industry.
    Specifically, the agrifood industry concentrates 6.2% of the total virtual and augmented reality tweets made by all sectors, a percentage that more than doubles the 2.5% share of primary sector tweets out of the total number of tweets analysed (the concentration index is equal to 2.5 in this case). This technology uses virtual environments (virtual reality) or incorporates virtual elements into reality (augmented reality) that provide additional knowledge and data that can be used to optimise processes. At first it may be surprising that this technology is relatively popular in the agrifood industry but its uses are spreading as the industry implements digital technologies in its production processes, in the so-called Industry 4.0. One specific example of how this technology is used is in repairing breakdowns. When a fault occurs, operators can use augmented reality goggles to follow the steps contained in virtual instruction manuals that are projected onto the lens to help resolve the incident. The glasses recognise the different parts of the machine and visually indicate to operators where they should act to solve the specific problem.

    There are numerous examples of new digital technologies being applied in the agrifood sector. We are witnessing a revolution that is destined to transform the different links in the food chain: from the exploitation of data and the use of drones to make harvesting more efficient to implementing blockchain technology to improve the traceability of the final products that reach our homes. In short, the future will bring us the Food Chain 4.0, a totally connected ecosystem from the field to the table.

    Destacado Economia y Mercados
    Destacado Analisis Sectorial
    Destacado Área Geográfica

From banknotes to bizum: the intergenerational boost of the pandemicto digital payment methods

In the last 20 years, the use of digital means of payment has steadily increased in Spain. Card purchases in Spain have gone from around 1 billion transactions in the early 2000s to over 4.5 billion in 2019. But are all generations joining this transition at the same speed?

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Señor mayor de perfil sobre fondo con símbolo de billete

Soon we will once again be able to go to a restaurant for dinner with friends, like before. After enjoying the gathering, the food and the company, the time will come to pay the bill. Without giving it too much thought, we will most likely split it and each pay their share with their card or mobile, or perhaps one person will pay the full amount and the rest will send them a bizum transfer immediately afterwards. This situation which now seems so natural to us was not so just a few years ago, when everyone would most likely have paid their share in cash. The use of smartphones to pay a restaurant bill or share it among friends is a result of the spread of technological advances which, among many other transformations, facilitate digital means of payment over cash.1 In the last 20 years, the use of digital means of payment has steadily increased in Spain. Card purchases in Spain have gone from around 1 billion transactions in the early 2000s to over 4.5 billion in 2019.2 Over the same period, cash withdrawals have remained stable at around 900 million transactions a year. But are all generations joining this transition at the same speed? In this article we will analyse how young people, adults and seniors3 are shifting from paying in cash to using digital payments, based on the card payment data, cash withdrawals and use of bizum of 13.4 million CaixaBank customers, completely anonymised. In particular, we will focus on how the pandemic we are currently enduring could act as a catalyst for relegating cash to a lower tier in the post-COVID world, and whether this catalyst will reach all generations.

  • 1. For more information on the evolution of the use of money, see the Dossier «Money: past, present and future» in the MR05/2018.
  • 2. Bank of Spain (2021). Statistics on payment cards (https://www.bde.es/f/webbde/SPA/sispago/ficheros/es/estadisticas.pdf).
  • 3. The three generations are classified as follows: young (18 to 29 years of age), adult (30 to 64) and senior (65 and over).
The reduction in the use of cash of recent years was accentuated during the pandemic

According to our data, in 2019 (a pre-pandemic world), seniors withdrew the same amount of cash as they used for card payments, while card spending among adults and young people was already 30% and 40%, respectively, above the amount of cash they withdrew. This greater use of cash by older people relative to the younger generations has been observed in many countries and is largely due to the persistence of habits.4 However, all generations are reducing their use of cash and increasing their card purchases, a trend which the pandemic accelerated significantly (see first chart).5

  • 4. See J. Bagnall et al. (2014). «Consumer cash usage: a cross-country comparison with payment diary survey data». ECB Working Papers nº 1685.
  • 5. This result has also been found in other studies. See, for example, «The paradox of banknotes: understanding the demand for cash beyond transactional use» in the ECB Economic Bulletin 2/2021.
Spain: cash withdrawals by each generation

The use of cash during the first few months of the pandemic was sharply reduced across all generations. In April (see second chart), seniors withdrew on average 40% less cash than in the same month of the previous year; while adults withdrew 46% less and young people, 51% less. However, from June onwards, the older generation quickly returned to withdrawing the same amount of cash as a year earlier (or only slightly less). In contrast, this recovery was only partial among adults and young people: the reduced use of cash persisted during the second half of 2020 (between June and December they withdrew on average around 15% and 22% less cash than a year ago, respectively). This is a potential indication of a change that could persist in the post-pandemic world too. Thus, the health crisis may have accelerated not only the transition to e-commerce (as discussed in the previous article), but also to a greater use of digital means of payment.

Spain: cash withdrawals by each generation during the pandemic
The use of bizum as a means of payment increases exponentially

One of the electronic means of payment which has seen an exponential increase in its use in Spain is bizum. Bizum is a mobile payment solution of the Spanish banking system which allows users to send and receive money with nothing but the other person’s mobile phone number. Its use was already growing rapidly before the pandemic, but has accelerated during it, particularly among young people and adults (see third chart). In December 2020, young people were already using bizum for 11.6% of their expenditure (including card purchases, cash withdrawals from ATMs and payments made with bizum), 7.5 pps more than in December 2019. Adults, meanwhile, had increased their use of it to 4.5% of their total expenditure (a year earlier it accounted for 1.0%). Seniors also joined the trend, but are lagging further behind: in December 2020 they used the application to carry out 1.4% of their total expenditure (versus 0.2% a year earlier).

In short, the results of our analysis show that all generations are using more digital means of payment and more often, albeit at different rates. Young people have their mobile phone to hand for use as a regular means of payment, whilst adults reach for the card in their wallet. Even seniors are increasing their use of digital payments, although the acceleration in their adoption has not been as pronounced as among other age groups. These results, taken together, are encouraging in a context in which central banks – including the ECB – are analysing the pros and cons of digital currencies and their optimal design.6 Creating a digital currency involves multiple challenges, such as questions over privacy or a potential impact on financial stability depending on how it is designed. The evidence presented in this article also underscores the importance of considering digital currency as an option that can serve to complement cash and other payment tools, but not to replace them.

  • 6. For more details, see the article «Central banks and digital currencies: a major challenge not without its difficulties» in the Dossier of the MR04/2021.
Spain: use of bizum by generation