• 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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Digital money in the economy of the future: new possibilities, new challenges

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May 15th, 2018

The bewildering technological advances that we are witnessing today open the door to a more widespread use of digital currencies in the not-too-distant future. But what is the potential of these currencies and how far can they go? In this article, the last stop of our journey on the history of money, we will travel into the future to reflect on these topics and their possible implications. It is a futuristic and exciting field, given that today we have more questions than certainties. But this should not discourage us, as the great French writer Victor Hugo said: «The future has many names. For the weak it is the unattainable. For the fearful, the unknown. For the brave, it is opportunity».

To begin with, it should be made clear that digital currencies already exist: the reserves held by retail banks in the central banks and the payments we make with credit cards are examples of digital money. Having said that, in this article we will go a little further, because we believe that the technological progress related to blockchain technology and the speed of electronic payment systems will allow digital money to play a much bigger role in the economy of the future.

Once the technology has been improved, we will be able to begin to think about how to implement a digital currency with much more widespread use. The first question is surrounding who should implement it. There are two alternatives: private digital currencies (examples such as Bitcoin already exist) or a digital currency that has the guarantee of the central bank (which we will call CBDC, as an acronym of central bank digital currency). Private digital currencies may seem like an attractive option, but as we have seen in the article «What can we expect from cryptocurrencies?» in this same Dossier, they suffer from certain limitations which make it difficult for their use to become successfully widespread. In contrast, the institutional mechanisms which the central banks enjoy in the financial system can help their implementation to be more fruitful. Thanks to their reputation and credibility,1 central banks have the capacity to ensure that the CBDC becomes legal tender and to generate a climate of trust so that it is perceived as a reliable and safe asset. In addition, a central bank has many more resources, more information and technical capacities in order to implement an appropriate monetary policy at any given time and to preserve the digital currency’s stability as a unit of account, thus avoiding sudden fluctuations in its price. This contrasts with the pitfalls that a private digital currency would face; at the end of the day, it is difficult for a private entity that is responsible for implementing a digital currency to have the relevant tools to design a credible standard of monetary supply with socially desirable objectives, such as stability in the price and in economic activity. This leads us to an initial conclusion on this intrepid «journey into the future» we have embarked upon: a digital currency backed by the central bank will stand more chance of being successfully implemented and used than a private digital currency. For this reason, in the rest of this article we will focus on analysing how the CBDC could be implemented, before delving into its advantages and disadvantages. In all scenarios, we will assume that the CBDC coexists with cash.

Broadly speaking, there are two natural ways to implement a CBDC, one of which is more limited (option 1) and the other of which is more disruptive (option 2). The first option would involve converting the euros we hold in our bank account into CBDC when making a payment or transfer, so that the transaction can be settled using the technology designed to implement the digital currency. Clearly, this first option would not affect individuals or companies when planning their domestic economies: simply, their euros would be converted into CBDC whenever they made a payment or transfer, and the underlying technology would allow the money to flow from sender to receiver without them noting any obvious change. It is worth emphasising that the creation of the CBDC would not introduce any substantial improvements in comparison to recent developments in payment systems. Two prime examples of these advances are the Single Euro Payments Area (SEPA), which sets a maximum period of one business day for the execution and settlement of euro-denominated transfers between 34 European countries, and the set of services which allow for instantaneous financial transactions to be carried out using mobile phones. Significant progress has been made in both cases, without the need for a digital currency backed by the central bank. One advantage of the CBDC in this scenario could be, perhaps, the increase in the speed of transfers between payment systems that are not interconnected, such as in the case of international transfers. This is an area in which Bitcoin and other digital currencies have already demonstrated certain advantages.

The second option would go further than the mere creation of the CBDC for making payments. In option 2, the central bank would sponsor a digital currency without restrictions, which would become another asset available to individuals and households and, therefore, would compete with bank deposits and cash. This second avenue could be approached in different ways. The two most logical alternatives would be to allow individuals and companies to deposit a portion of their savings in the form of CBDC, either in digital wallets2 or directly in accounts held in the central bank.

This scenario would represent a novelty in people’s daily lives: households and companies could choose to place part of their savings directly in their digital wallets or in the central bank (it should be remembered that today, only a limited group of financial institutions can deposit money in the central bank). Interestingly, there is a historical precedent that is very similar to the second alternative for bringing about option 2, albeit without the digital medium of modern times, of course: up until the early 20th century, individuals and companies were allowed to deposit their money in both the Bank of England and the Bank of Sweden. However, this practice later ended, since in the age of paper it was highly impractical and occupied a lot of space to record all the details of the large number of accounts that had been opened.

From now on, we will focus on analysing the implications of option 2, since, unlike the first option, it would have significant repercussions. Let us begin by discussing its advantages. We have identified three potential benefits associated with the implementation of the CBDC. The first one would be a potential reduction in the size of the shadow economy. This is critically dependent on the degree of anonymity of the CBDC. The most reasonable solution would be for the CBDC to be anonymous in small transactions but for there to be a certain level of control starting from a particular amount. If this were the case, a CBDC that became popular thanks to its speed and ease of use might discourage the use of cash and reduce the size of the shadow economy. Various studies support this theory3 and have documented that an increase in the use of electronic payment systems decreases the size of the shadow economy. This negative relationship in the euro area can be seen in the first chart, and the figures are revealing: an increase of 100 euros per capita per year in card payments would reduce the shadow economy as a percentage of GDP by as much as 3.5 pps.

The second advantage would be households’ and companies’ access to a risk-free asset (by definition, the central bank cannot go bankrupt) which, unlike cash, would involve no storage costs.

Finally, a third advantage would be that the central bank could improve the effectiveness of monetary policy. Specifically, if the CBDC were to allow households and companies to open accounts directly in the central bank, the central bank could directly adjust the interest rates on the assets of households and companies. This could prove to be a useful tool in financial crises if the mechanism for transmitting monetary policy does not work well. In fact, setting an interest rate on the CBDC would also affect the deposits of retail banks, since they would have to offer a sufficiently attractive remuneration in order to prevent their customers from transferring their deposits to the central bank. In any case, the debate surrounding the benefits of such a tool should revolve around the extent to which it would improve the effectiveness of monetary policy in comparison to the instruments currently available to the central bank. It is worth remembering that in recent years, the central banks have had a much more direct influence on the costs of financing for individuals and companies, through the purchases of public debt securities (see second chart) and corporate debt that they have carried out through their various quantitative easing (QE) programmes.4

Despite the advantages we have discussed regarding this implementation of the CBDC, we would be foolish to fall into complacency, since there are also risks that are by no means insignificant. The main risk of creating a widely-used CBDC would be the risk of the central bank having an excessively important role in the distribution of resources in the economy, as well as the risk of a potential rise in the cost of credit, depending on the central bank’s actions. To understand why, it must be borne in mind that with this implementation of the CBDC, a portion of the banking deposits of households and companies held in retail banks would be converted into CBDC (either held in digital wallets or in the accounts of the central bank). Therefore, in order for the retail banks to continue to finance the demand for credit, the most natural avenue would be for them to obtain the necessary liquidity from the central bank. If the central bank decided to take on this more interventionist role as a supplier of liquidity, the retail banks would be highly dependent on the liquidity that the central bank would provide.

If the central bank is able to adapt quickly and the distribution of liquidity is carried out applying the appropriate criteria, the problem would be resolved. However, if this is not the case, it could result in a rise in the cost of credit. In fact, the increased role of the central bank in distributing resources in the economy could lead to distortions in their allocation (a decentralised mechanism in the hands of the private sector will always lead to a more efficient allocation) and could complicate the setting of prices based on market criteria. This last point is only novel to a certain extent, since we can draw a parallel with the greater role that central banks have taken through their ultra-expansive QE policies in the last decade. In this regard, the Bank for International Settlements has repeatedly expressed fears that interest rates kept at abnormally low levels for such a long time are generating distortions in the valuation of some financial assets and are contributing to prolonging the upward spiral in the levels of debt of the major economies.

If the central bank were to waive this interventionist role and adopt a hands-off stance to liquidity problems, on the other hand, retail banks would have to obtain the resources necessary to finance the demand for credit themselves (possibly by increasing rates on deposits, to prevent customers from transferring their money to the central bank), and this would also end up producing a rise in the cost of credit.

Finally, it is worth adding that the potential dependence of the economy on the central bank could be particularly pronounced in times of recession, since it is precisely during periods of economic crisis that individuals and companies tend to be more risk averse. As a result, they would surely convert more of their assets from retail bank deposits into CBDC, which could lead to episodes of financial instability. These risks must not fall on deaf ears. In fact, they have been highlighted by the Bank for International Settlements and by the member of the ECB Yves Mersch5 when displaying their reticence with regard to the desirability of this option.

In short, we end our intense journey with the conviction that the possibility of the central banks deciding to issue their own digital currency to a wide audience in the future is no pipe dream. This possibility is a prime example of how technological development is making us rethink the current system. In the next few years, the main central banks and financial bodies will spell out the advantages and disadvantages of these currencies and it will be important to closely follow the developments that arise in this field. This article contributes to the discussion by identifying possible repercussions of issuing a currency of this kind. Debate around the matter is, and will be, more than welcome, provided that the costs are thoroughly analysed and the possible implications are well understood.

Javier García-Arenas and Marta Guasch

CaixaBank Research

1. For further details on the central banks, see the article «From barter to cryptocurrency: a brief history of exchange» in this Dossier.

2. These wallets h could be disconnected from retail banks. They would be very similar to the wallets of today, where we keep banknotes and cash, but in a digital format.

3. For further details, see the article «The shadow economy: too great a burden» in the Dossier of the MR09/13.

4. According to data from the IMF, 9 out of the 15 billion dollars of assets acquired by the central banks that have embarked on QE programmes in the last decade are sovereign debt securities.

5. See the report «Central bank digital currencies» (2018), by the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures of the BIS and Y. Mersch (2017), «Digital Base Money: an assessment from the ECB’s perspective», speech at the Bank of Finland.

 

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