Food and Water

The map of food: why we need a world atlas of what we eat

Maize, one of only three staple crops of which the world relies for nearly half of its daily calorie intake.

Maize, one of only three staple crops of which the world relies for nearly half of its daily calorie intake. Image: Reuters/Marcos Brindicci

Nancy Brown
Chief Executive Officer, American Heart Association
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  • In a world of growing instability, food insecurity remains an urgent concern.
  • Data-driven innovation will allow food stakeholders to meet economic, environmental and health targets.
  • The Periodic Table of Food initiative aims to create a comprehensive database of food types and components across the world.

Thus far in the 21st century, we've come to take for granted feats such as delivering items to remote locations via drone, and the even more extreme delivery of tourists into space. What once seemed possible only in comic books seems to become closer to reality every day. Yet at the same time, problems that have plagued humankind throughout history are getting worse. The list starts with the most basic need of all: Food.

Malnutrition itself is a leading cause of death; poor diet is a major contributing factor in many more diseases. All of this generates global burdens of every kind: economic, political and, in the most basic sense, humanitarian. We can all agree that everyone, everywhere deserves access to ample amounts of nutritious food.

Have you read?

The obstacles dominate our daily headlines. International conflicts, a global pandemic, climate change and more are the primary challenges, often triggering secondary issues such as clogged, fractured supply chains. The result: Ill health and poverty cycles are perpetuated, further burdening already strained healthcare systems.

We understand the problems. Now it's time to start implementing solutions.

Fortunately, there are ways to reverse this crisis. More simply put, there are ways to provide healthy meals to those in need. Studies and global convenings, such as the first United Nations Food Systems Summit held in 2021, offer fresh ideas to globally transform the food system to better promote healthy, accessible, and sustainable diets.

“Transforming to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts,” writes Professor Walter Willett, MD, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the Summary Report of the EAT-Lancet Commission. "Global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consuming foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50%. A diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods will improve health and environmental benefits."

Another recent report suggests that diets high in plant foods and low in animal foods could improve many sustainability targets, including lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease, healthcare costs and global greenhouse gas emissions. Alas, doing so requires navigating barriers such as knowledge, accessibility and cultural norms.

Because the world is such a vast, diverse landscape, there's no easy way to do this. No single, silver-bullet solution will transform the global food system to achieve healthy and sustainable diets.

Still, we know that a coordinated approach across nations and sectors is vital to solve food system challenges. We also know health equity should – and must – be at the centre of those innovations. Data-driven innovations would allow all stakeholders across the food system to adopt practices that simultaneously improve economic, environmental and health targets.

Shifting from food insecurity to food security will require collaborative efforts among international, national, regional and local supply chains. This is the essence of the notion of going from farm-to-table. This is the lynchpin in ensuring accessibility to healthy and sustainable diets. And because your table may look different from mine, we must factor into the process foods that are culturally acceptable and relevant.

The Eat-Lancet Report on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems emphasizes five strategies to transform the food system:

1. Seek international and national commitments to shift toward healthy diets.

2. Reorient agricultural priorities from producing high quantities of food to producing healthy food.

3. Sustainably intensify food production to increase high-quality output.

4. Strong and coordinated governance of land and oceans.

5. At least halve food losses and waste, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Clearly, this won't be easy. That's why it's so exciting to see some of the data-driven innovations are on the horizon, such as the Periodic Table of Food Initiative (PTFI).

I'm proud to say this initiative is managed by the American Heart Association on behalf of multiple funders, including the Rockefeller Foundation, Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research, and the Seerave Foundation.

Along with the AHA, the Periodic Table of Food is co-managed by the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, which is focused on delivering research-based solutions for agricultural and food systems sustainability.

The name obviously stems from the periodic table of elements we all learned in grade school. However, it's perhaps best explained by comparison to the evolution of navigation instructions. Over the last 20 years, fold-out maps were replaced by computer printouts, which were replaced by dedicated GPS devices, which were replaced by apps on our phones that we don’t even have to look at – a voice gives us turn-by-turn directions. The evolution is rooted in satellite and mapping technology generated by countless agencies around the globe working together on a shared goal that benefits everyone, everywhere.

Similarly, the Periodic Table of Food Initiative seeks to gather standardized and comprehensive information on food from all over the world. Collaboration and capacity-strengthening across scientific networks is key. The PTFI is creating the database, and the AHA is enabling conditions for others to populate the database as well by providing standardized analytical protocols.

Malnutrition isn’t just a lack of food; it’s a lack of nutritious food. So, as we seek to feed populations, we must provide sustainable, diverse foods that meet their individual needs. That’s a major challenge because our scientific understanding of the foods that nourish us is still rudimentary.

Generally, 150 biochemical components of food are measured and tracked in food composition databases. Yet there are tens of thousands of such biochemicals in food. Using the GPS analogy again, it is as if we’ve mapped only the highways and a few major roads in a metropolitan area – a good start, but a lot of work remains. That's where the PTFI comes in.

Creating partnerships across national, academic and industry labs using standardized approaches created by the PTFI partners, the initiative aims to expand the number of foods currently available in food composition databases. Currently, there are around 400 single-ingredient foods in most databases. The aim is to log more than 1,000 of the world's most commonly consumed whole foods in the next two years, and ultimately all foods, using the same protocols to gather primary data

It's also worth noting that there's a need to rebalance our food portfolio. Additionally, the world has become over-reliant on a few staple crops. Consider this imbalance: Nearly half of our daily calorie intake comes from three food sources (rice, maize and wheat). Yet there are upwards of over 10,000 edible plant species consumed for food.

In one way, this knowledge is frustrating. But viewed through the lens of the initiative, these are opportunities. And there are more opportunities on the back end. Once the database is set up, everyone from the scientific community to the private sector can build on it by adding additional foods, varieties and cooking methods.

“Our goal at the PTFI is to create a globally shared food composition database that represents the edible biodiversity consumed by people across the planet,” said Selena Ahmed, Global Director of the PTFI.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

Food insecurity has plagued far too many for far too long. In an era where we've figured out how to zip packages to remote outposts in deserts and jungles, and to give non-astronauts quick trips to the brink of the stratosphere, surely we can get nutritious food into the mouths of the malnourished.

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