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

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    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.

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How does teleworking affect society and our way of life?

The coronavirus outbreak has made remote work popular and fuelled debate regarding its impact on society and our way of life. However, the concept of working from home is not new; in fact, it was the norm for a large number of workers until well into the 19th century.

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Teletrabajo

Despite all the technology that makes it possible, the concept of teleworking can scarcely be considered a modern invention. Up until the 19th century, what we know today as remote working was the usual format for many: working from home was the norm for craftsmen and peasants, who conducted part or all of their occupation in a space set aside for this purpose in their homes. With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, the factory and the office – as we have seen in the first article of this Dossier – replaced the domestic workshop and became the dominant working environment. With many nuances, this has been the case ever since.

Today, the coronavirus outbreak has once again brought remote working into vogue and has fuelled the debate about its social impact and the way we live. Nevertheless, the concept of teleworking had been recovered much earlier, when Jack Nilles, recognised as the «father» of teleworking, revived it in 1973 in a world still without the internet as a way for companies to offset the economic losses suffered as a result of the oil crisis.1 As interest in teleworking as a way to save costs grew, so it did as a way to solve other social problems. In a world with a greater participation of women in the labour market, where all members of the household had to juggle work with domestic chores and childcare, teleworking was identified as a tool to address problems related to work-life balance or low birth rates. Let us take a closer look.

  • 1. See Allen et al. (2015). «How effective is telecommuting? Assessing the status of our scientific findings». Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 16(2), 40-68.
Better work-life balance under certain conditions...

One of the great attractions that has been attributed to teleworking is that it allows for a better reconciliation between people’s professional and personal lives (commonly referred to as «work-life balance»). This issue is of great interest in societies where domestic and childcare tasks have gone from being exclusively the remit of one member of the family unit (usually the woman) to being an occupation shared by all members of the household, since they all work away from home.

According to the meta-analysis carried out by Allen et al. (2015), while teleworking is associated with a better work-life balance, and although the relationship is statistically significant, quantitatively it is rather tenuous. In particular, the study shows that if we were to ask 100 teleworkers whether teleworking has helped them to achieve a better work-life balance, on average we would «only» get 16 positive responses.

Other studies add important nuances to this result. Golden et al. (2006) show us that the positive relationship between teleworking and work-life balance grows with its intensity.2 That is, the more a person works remotely, the greater the benefits of teleworking as a tool for achieving a better work-life balance: teleworking one day a month is not the same as three days a week. Furthermore, as one would expect, a person’s experience in teleworking is also a key factor. Thus, people who have been working remotely for more than a year manage to achieve greater gains in their work-life balance than those who have been doing so for less time. Taking these nuances into account, the ratio of 16 positive responses per 100 respondents could increase to 25. While this is a considerable figure, it is by no means overwhelming.

Similarly, other studies analyse the relationship between teleworking and job satisfaction and also find a positive relationship. However, the effect in this case is not linear, and the benefits tend to disappear when the intensity of teleworking is high. This result is associated with the loss of social relationships and the greater sense of isolation that intense teleworking can generate.

  • 2. T.D. Golden, J.F. Veiga and Z. Simsek (2006). «Telecommuting’s differential impact on work–family conflict: Is there no place like home?». Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 1340–1350.
... but a balance with limitations

As usual, the evidence available to date answers some of the questions raised, but opens the door to many more. For instance, how can it be that teleworking fails to report large gains in the eternal problem of achieving a work-life balance? In the end, teleworking saves us commuting time and gives us greater flexibility to combine professional and domestic tasks.

Let us highlight some channels that limit the potential benefits of teleworking. Firstly, just as teleworking makes it easier to prevent our work from interfering with our personal life, a concept that we will abbreviate with the acronym WIF (work interferes with family), the literature also explores the opposite effect: that our family life interferes with our work (FIW). According to the meta-analysis by Allen et al., the greater the intensity of teleworking, the lower the WIF but the higher the FIW. It is easy to imagine, for example, that teleworking blurs the distinction between family and professional roles: while teleworking makes it possible to switch roles much more readily, which can contribute to a better work-life balance, it also increases the likelihood of FIW occurring. In other words, it increases the likelihood of interruptions and other problems from the domestic and family environment arising that can end up hindering job performance.

Secondly, another reason cited as a possible mitigating factor in the relationship between teleworking and work-life balance is the servitude generated by the digital connection. The technological interface that enables teleworking can also lead to extended working hours, for instance by creating the need to constantly check our emails, even outside normal working hours. If teleworking were to widely lead to longer working hours, then it could not be expected to improve work-life balance.

From teleworking to childbirth

At a time when our societies must learn to deal with the slow but inevitable decline in the birth rate and all its repercussions,3 considering ways in which we can combine our family and professional lives is crucial. As we have seen, with teleworking serving as a way to improve work-life balance, it could also influence the very decision to have children. In this regard, could we consider teleworking «an engine of liberation», a way of working that would impose fewer restrictions on households’ decisions related to having children?4

While we do not know of any studies that explicitly address this relationship, closely connected issues have been analysed. For example, in a relatively recent study conducted with data from German households, Billari et al. analysed whether broadband internet access affected decisions related to having children. They found a small but positive effect between access to high-quality internet and the birth rate in women between 25 and 45 years of age and with a high level of education.5 According to the authors, the reason for this is that broadband internet access opens the door to more flexible forms of working that facilitate a better reconciliation between work and family life, such as part-time work or telework.

  • 3. See, for example, the Dossier «Impact of ageing in Spain and Portugal» in the MR04/2020.
  • 4. See Billari, et al. (2017). «Does Broadband Internet Affect Fertility?». IZA DP n.º 10935.
  • 5. The authors find that broadband internet access increases the likelihood of having children by 12% among women between 25 and 45 years of age and with a high level of education.
Interference between personal and professional life
Conclusiones

En definitiva, el impacto del teletrabajo no se ciñe tan solo al ámbito económico –tal y como hemos explorado en el artículo anterior–, sino que tiene derivadas sociales muy importantes y en temáticas clave como la conciliación y la satisfacción laboral e, incluso, la tasa de natalidad. La evidencia empírica hasta el mo­­mento señala que, en efecto, el teletrabajo como forma más flexible de trabajo favorece una mejor conciliación laboral, incrementa el grado de satisfacción laboral y puede aumentar la probabilidad de que los hogares tengan más hijos. Sin embargo, detrás de esta evidencia existen algunos matices importantes para que estos efectos positivos ocurran efectivamente: son esenciales una correcta implementación del teletrabajo y un proceso de aprendizaje. En caso contrario, puede convertirse en una nueva forma de servidumbre más que en una liberación.