Map scale

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

  • In a world of growing instability, food insecurity remains a pressing concern.
  • Data-driven innovation will enable food stakeholders to achieve economic, environmental and health goals.
  • The Periodic Table of Foods initiative aims to create a comprehensive database of food types and components across the globe.

So far in the 21st century, we have come to take for granted such feats as the delivery of items to remote locations by drone and the even more extreme delivery of tourists into space. What once seemed possible only in the comics seems to be getting closer to reality every day. Yet, at the same time, the problems that have plagued humanity throughout history are getting worse. The list begins with the most basic need of all: food.

Malnutrition itself is one of the main causes of death; poor diet is a major contributing factor in many other diseases. All of this generates global burdens of all kinds: economic, political and, in the most basic sense, humanitarian. We can all agree that everyone, everywhere deserves access to plenty of nutritious food.


Obstacles dominate our daily headlines. International conflicts, a global pandemic, climate change and many more are the primary challenges, often triggering secondary issues such as congested and fractured supply chains. The result: Cycles of ill health and poverty are perpetuated, further burdening already strained health systems.

We understand the issues. Now is the time to start implementing solutions.

Fortunately, there are ways to reverse this crisis. Put simply, there are ways to provide healthy meals to those in need. Global studies and meetings, such as the first UN Food Systems Summit held in 2021, offer new ideas to transform the food system globally to better promote healthy, accessible and sustainable diets.

“The transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary changes,” writes Professor Walter Willett, MD, of the Harvard TH 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 the consumption of foods like red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50%. A diet rich in plant-based foods and with less ‘foods of animal origin will enhance health and environmental benefits.’

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

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

Yet we know that a coordinated approach across nations and sectors is essential to solving food system challenges. We also know that health equity should – and must – be at the center of these innovations. Data-driven innovations would enable all food system stakeholders to adopt practices that simultaneously improve economic, environmental and health goals.

Moving from food insecurity to food security will require collaborative efforts across international, national, regional and local supply chains. This is the essence of the concept of going from farm to table. It is the keystone of accessibility to healthy and sustainable diets. And because your table may look different from mine, we need to consider processed foods that are culturally acceptable and relevant.

The Eat-Lancet report on healthy diets from sustainable food systems focuses on five strategies to transform the food system:

1. Seek international and national commitments to switch to healthy diets.

2. Shift agricultural priorities from producing large quantities of food to producing safe food.

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

4. Strong and coordinated governance of lands and oceans.

5. Reduce food loss and waste by at least half, in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Clearly, it won’t be easy. That’s why it’s so exciting to see some of the data-driven innovations on the horizon, like the Periodic Table of Foods Initiative (PTFI).

I am proud to say that this initiative is managed by the American Heart Association on behalf of several funders, including the Rockefeller Foundation, the Food and Agriculture Research Foundation, and the Seerave Foundation.

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

The name obviously comes from the periodic table of elements that we all learned about in elementary school. However, this is perhaps better explained by comparison with the evolution of navigation instructions. Over the past 20 years, folding maps have been replaced by computer printouts, which have been replaced by dedicated GPS devices, which have been replaced by apps on our phones that we don’t even need to look at. – a voice gives us the turn-by-turn directions. The evolution is rooted in satellite and map technology generated by countless agencies around the world working together towards a common goal that benefits everyone, everywhere.

Similarly, the Periodic Table of Foods initiative seeks to bring together standardized and comprehensive information on foods from around the world. Collaboration and capacity building between scientific networks is essential. The PTFI creates the database and the AHA creates the conditions for others to also populate the database by providing standardized analytical protocols.

Malnutrition is not just a lack of food; it is a lack of nutritious food. So, as we seek to feed people, we must provide sustainable and diverse foods that meet their individual needs. This is a major challenge because our scientific understanding of the foods that feed us is still rudimentary.

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

By creating partnerships between national, academic and industrial laboratories using standardized approaches created by PTFI partners, the initiative aims to increase the number of foods currently available in food composition databases. Currently there are around 400 single ingredient foods in most databases. The goal is to record over 1,000 of the world’s most consumed whole foods over the next two years, and eventually all foods, using the same protocols to collect primary data.

It should also be noted that it is necessary to rebalance our food portfolio. Moreover, the world has become too dependent on a few basic cultures. Consider this imbalance: nearly half of our daily calorie intake comes from three food sources (rice, corn, and wheat). Yet more than 10,000 species of edible plants are consumed for food.

In a way, this knowledge is frustrating. But seen through the prism of initiative, these are opportunities. And there are more opportunities at the back. Once the database is created, anyone from the scientific community to the private sector can enrich it with additional foods, varieties and cooking methods.

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

Two billion people in the world are currently malnourished and according to some estimates we need 60% more food to feed the world’s population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of global water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has lagged behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.

Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.

With research, increased investment in new agricultural technologies, and integration of local and regional initiatives to strengthen food security, the platform works with more than 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.


Learn more about the impact of Innovation with a Purpose and contact us to see how you can get involved.

Food insecurity has affected far too many people for far too long. At a time when we’ve figured out how to zip packages to remote outposts in deserts and jungles, and offer non-astronauts quick trips to the edge of the stratosphere, surely we can put nutritious food in the mouths of people suffering from malnutrition.