• 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

    p 28

    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

Digitalisation and automation: what will we produce tomorrow?

Digitalisation and advances in automation have the potential to alter countries' productive specialisation. In this article we attempt to predict the changes that will occur in what and how  (particularly advanced) economies will produce.

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Digitalisation and advances in automation have the potential to change countries’ productive specialisation: what and how we produce. As an example, the huge leap in information and communication technologies (ICTs) since the 1990s paved the way for the fragmentation of production processes, allowing companies to carry them out in multiple countries – taking advantage of their various expertise. This process led to the well-known phenomenon of global value chains (GVCs), linked to the offshoring of numerous manufacturing processes from advanced economies to emerging ones.

Some of the latest technological advances have the ability to reverse this trend. For instance, in this article we will see that new forms of automation (such as robots) could favour the return of some manufacturing to advanced countries. On the other hand, it seems that the continuing evolution of ICTs and the growing importance of digitalisation will continue to favour the «servitisation» of developed countries, a point which we will also address in detail in this article. In addition to new technologies, other factors such as the pandemic or the technology and trade conflict between the US and China have the potential to impact production specialisation.

Given such a multiplicity of forces, it is difficult to forecast changes in what and how economies (advanced ones in particular) will produce in years to come, but this is what we will endeavour to do in this article.

Trends and their impact on the productive specialisation of advanced countries
New automation and new consumers: the return of factories to advanced economies?

Today’s robots – which are equipped with artificial intelligence, are more digitally connected, and are available at prices that have declined substantially over the last few decades – represent a veritable revolution.1 The improved productivity of these new robots could lead to some manufacturing processes, which had previously been relocated to emerging countries in the last three decades to take advantage of low labour costs, returning to advanced countries. In other words, we would shift from a trend dominated by offshoring to one of reshoring.

But just how much manufacturing activity could we be talking about? Recent analyses suggest that manufacturing could increase by around 10% in advanced countries thanks to new forms of automation over the next decade.2

One factor that boosts this trend of the reshoring of manufacturing to advanced countries is the change that has occurred among consumers in these countries, having developed more varied tastes as a result of greater global connectivity. Consumers are also more aware of their impact on the environment. Both characteristics favour GVCs that are shorter and closer to the end consumer, since such production chains facilitate a quicker response to changing tastes and are more environmentally friendly given their proximity.3

  • 1. The price of robots in real terms has halved in the last 30 years (McKinsey, 2017).
  • 2. Figure based on Krenz et al. (2020), who estimate that an increase of 1 robot per 1,000 workers results in a 3.5% reshoring of manufacturing activity that had previously been offshored, and also based on estimates by Boston Consulting Group of the increase in automation in the manufacturing sector: amounting to 50% over the next decade.
  • 3. Prudence is essential when estimating changes driven by reshoring. One of the main reasons for this is that offshoring is relatively stable over time, since establishing global outsourcing strategies involves the company incurring significant sunk costs. See P. Antràs (2020). «De-Globalisation? Global Value Chains in the Post-COVID-19 Age». NBER Working Paper (w28115).
ICTs and digitalisation: advanced countries’ advantage in services

The continued evolution of ICTs (through 5G, to name an example) will favour the international trade of a greater number of services: while in essence most services are non-tradable digital technologies are making it possible for some of them to become tradable. At the end of the 1980s, services (excluding tourism) accounted for just under 6% of total international trade, whereas today this percentage exceeds 13%. Indeed, engineering projects, consultancy services or even clinical diagnostics through imaging have become increasingly prevalent services within international trade, and this trend will only continue with better global connections. An example would be the possibility to perform remote surgery thanks to the speed, immediacy and security of 5G connections. In this regard, advanced countries, with a more qualified workforce and more experience in the production of many services, have a clear advantage over emerging ones.

On the other hand, huge digital advances have opened the door to a world in which data and their use have become a product and/or service in themselves, with the potential to substantially improve many companies’ and industries’ competitiveness. Once again, as in the case of more classic services, advanced countries, with their better-trained and more experienced workforce, have the upper hand when it comes to exploiting these data flows.

At this point, however, we must not forget that countries such as India and especially China are emerging as clear competitors in this novel business of data flows and their utilisation. As an example, in China, enrolment in higher education stood at around 3% in the early 1990s, compared to 25% in 2010 and more than 50% today.4 Moreover, some 45 million university students graduate in the country every year, and in 2018 the number of scientific, technical, and medical articles published by Chinese researchers exceeded those published by Americans for the first time.5

  • 4. According to data from the World Bank.
  • 5. World Education News and Reviews.
COVID-19 and geopolitics: disruptive elements

Beyond the automation and digitalisation of economies themselves, elements such as the current coronavirus crisis or geopolitics play an important role in production specialisation worldwide.

Specifically, the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to accelerate some technological trends. The health crisis has highlighted the greater resilience of the most digitalised and automated companies in disruptive contexts such as the present. We can therefore expect companies to increase their investment in automation and digitalisation in the medium term. As we have already said, this will favour the reshoring of manufacturing towards advanced countries,6 although it also has the potential to increase the amount and range of services offered by advanced countries worldwide.7

On the other hand, besides the other factors already mentioned, the current trade and technology conflict between the US and China represents a geopolitical factor that also has the potential to alter advanced countries’ production specialisation. The process of the US’ decoupling from China, with a broad bipartisan consensus in the country, could have an impact not only on the US economy but also on the various European economies. If Europe sides with the US in the fight against China’s technological rise, it is at risk of suffering a delay in its transition towards greater digitalisation and automation, since the so-called old continent is highly dependent on Chinese equipment for deploying its 5G network, which is key to the new Industry 4.0.

In short, after decades in which the hyper-globalisation of production chains has led to a significant disparity in production specialisation between advanced and emerging countries, these specialisations will change with the rise of new technologies. While we do not anticipate a radical and sudden transformation, we could see a shift in the trend at the global level over the coming years.

  • 6. See Chernoff, W. Alex and C. Warman (2020). «COVID-19 and Implications for Automation». National Bureau of Economic Research (w27249).
  • 7. Furthermore, the COVID-19 crisis could also encourage a strategic shift towards more robust GVCs (see the article «How COVID-19 will change the way we produce» in the Dossier of the MR05/2020).