Our Food Systems Are Complicated. Food Data Doesn’t Have to Be.

Researchers made a “Google Maps” for global food systems. Could it help us tackle food’s thorniest problems?

An orange against a blue background

Analysis Food Food Systems

Covering Climate NowThis story originally appeared in Eos and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

At a time when half of the fresh fruit purchased in the United States comes from other countries and sandwiches have carbon footprints, today’s food landscape is giving some consumers more options. Yet this bounty of choices remains unavailable to many, and it comes with environmental costs.

The webs of agricultural and commercial activities that bring food from farms to our tables, called food systems, have never been so complex, complicating the work of researchers, planners, and others looking to make positive impacts on human health and the environment. A new tool developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) aims to help such decision-makers by allowing them to distill and visualize loads of data on food systems into a Google Maps-like dashboard.

A Global Problem

The help may be desperately needed: Worldwide, nearly 1 in 10 people don’t have enough food to eat, and 3 billion can’t afford a healthful diet, according to a 2020 United Nations report. “The numbers are kind of scary,” said Lawrence Haddad, executive director of GAIN. The number of people struggling with hunger has gone back up in recent years. Although the number of people struggling with hunger decreased between 1990 and the mid-2010s, the numbers have gone back up in recent years because of conflicts and political fragility in many parts of the world, said Haddad. Effects of climate change, such as increases in extreme weather and land degradation, aren’t helping either.

At the same time, policymakers and businesses often emphasize profit over nutritionally or environmentally beneficial outcomes, said Haddad. “The system is not set up to [benefit nutrition or the environment]. It’s set up to make money.”

So he and his colleagues set out to create a tool for investigating agricultural, production, and distribution supply chains, as well as drivers of food systems like urbanization and gender equality, health outcomes like diet and nutrition, and other related factors. The result is a colorful online dashboard—the first to distill country-level data into one place—that lets users tinker with and explore more than 170 facets of food systems around the world.

“You can’t fix something that you can’t measure,” Haddad said. Now decision-makers can zero in on failing parts of systems and tweak them to improve nutrition for consumers, increase crop biodiversity, or minimize greenhouse gas emissions.

How It Works

Food Systems Dashboard, GAIN and Johns Hopkins University, 2020, Geneva, Switzerland

The goal of the dashboard is to make it easier for policymakers, businesspeople, and others to describe, diagnose, and enact changes in food systems.

The dashboard includes information by country and year for a wide variety of indicators: Users can toggle among the average daily fruit consumption by adolescents, supermarkets per capita, and greenhouse gas emissions from fertilizers, for example. The data are presented on maps and graphs that change dynamically.

Haddad said that without the Food Systems Dashboard, it would take many months to find all the data and then clean, organize, and document them and put them together in a food systems framework.

It’s a “one-stop-shop” database, said Destan Aytekin, a specialist with the food production nonprofit HarvestPlus who was not involved in creating the dashboard. With colleagues, Aytekin is using the dashboard to research nutrient-enriched staple crops in the Sahel region of Africa.

“The fact that all the information we needed was available in one place was very valuable for us, especially because we were looking to learn more about many countries in the region and gather data on many indicators at once,” Aytekin said.

The dashboard pulls data from 30 different sources, many of them public. To facilitate some of the data aggregation, the dashboard team entered into a 10-year agreement with the market research company Euromonitor International, which collects data from food retail outlets. Euromonitor usually sells its data, said Haddad, but now the data are publicly available through the dashboard.

The Dashboard in Action: Hunger and El Niño

Ramya Ambikapathi is no stranger to food systems. As a postdoctoral researcher at Purdue University’s Department of Public Health, she has worked in five countries studying issues ranging from breastfeeding practices to the role of fathers in family nutrition outcomes. Recently, she mapped the effects of COVID-19 on food systems.

When the dashboard came online in June, Ambikapathi perused the database for insights that would inform a research question that had been on her mind for years. She wrote her doctoral thesis on the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and how it influences children’s nutrition in the Peruvian Amazon. The climate oscillation has intimate effects on foods systems because it changes weather patterns around the world.

Ambikapathi wanted to know how communities survived these shifts, like extreme changes in precipitation.

She first selected countries most affected by ENSO, a group that spans the globe from Indonesia to Somalia to Mexico. She then ranked the countries in the dashboard to get a feeling for how access to food changes throughout the year, which can be affected by factors like supermarket availability or people’s ability to weather hard times using personal remittances.

Her initial analysis of 15 countries found that Haiti, Kenya, Zambia, and Zimbabwe are most vulnerable to ENSO. “Zambia, in particular, with the lowest per capita remittances, may have a longer rate of recovery from ENSO exposures when compared to other countries,” Ambikapathi said. She added that her estimates and hypotheses are preliminary so far and would require deeper study to test.

Ambikapathi’s assessment won first prize in the dashboard’s 2020 competition. She has proposed creating a review of food systems around the world affected by chronic climate shocks using the dashboard.

What’s Next?

Perhaps the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations will adopt the dashboard in the future, said Haddad, but funds to maintain and further develop the dashboard must be in place first. Current funding comes from a grab bag of international foundations, agencies, research centers, ministries, and development programs. The dashboard will require about $10 million to maintain over the next 5 years, and Haddad and colleagues have raised $1 million so far.

Haddad, a self-described data geek, said the dashboard will continue to evolve. It may someday feature state- and province-level data too. And work is underway with partners in India, Indonesia, and Nigeria to help those countries develop their own dashboards to complement the existing dashboard’s global view.

“When you really get into the weeds, you find you want more and more data,” Haddad said. “[The dashboard is] really helping people see the whole picture.”

Support Us

Independent Journalism Needs You

Donate » -opens in new tab. Donate via PayPal More options »