Use of the DELTA Model to Understand the Food System and Global Nutrition

J Nutr. 2021 Oct 1;151(10):3253-3261. doi: 10.1093/jn/nxab199.


Background: Increasing attention is being directed at the environmental, social, and economic sustainability of the global food system. However, a key aspect of a sustainable food system should be its ability to deliver nutrition to the global population. Quantifying nutrient adequacy with current tools is challenging.

Objective: To produce a computational model illustrating the nutrient adequacy of current and proposed global food systems.

Methods: The DELTA Model was constructed using global food commodity balance sheet data, alongside demographic and nutrient requirement data from UN and European Food Safety Authority sources. It also includes nutrient bioavailability considerations for protein, the indispensable amino acids, iron, and zinc, sourced from scientific literature.

Results: The DELTA Model calculates global per capita nutrient availability under conditions of equal distribution and identifies areas of nutrient deficiency for various food system scenarios. Modeling the 2018 global food system showed that it supplied insufficient calcium (64% of demographically weighted target intake) and vitamin E (69%), despite supplying sufficient macronutrients. Several future scenarios were modeled, including variations in waste; scaling up current food production for the 2030 global population; plant-based food production systems; and removing sugar crops from the global food system. Each of these scenarios fell short of meeting requirements for multiple nutrients. These results emphasize the need for a balanced approach in the design of future food systems.

Conclusions: Nutrient adequacy must be at the forefront of the sustainable food system debate. The DELTA Model was designed for both experts and nonexperts to inform this debate as to what may be possible, practical, and optimal for our food system. The model results strongly suggest that both plant and animal foods are necessary to achieve global nutrition. The model is freely available for public use so that anyone can explore current and simulated global food systems.

Keywords: mass balance; mathematical modeling; micronutrients; nutrient adequacy; sustainability; systems modeling.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Diet
  • Eating
  • Micronutrients
  • Nutrients*
  • Nutritional Requirements
  • Nutritional Status*
  • Nutritive Value


  • Micronutrients