Dr Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, 2021 World Food Prize Laureate Photo: WorldFishDr Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, 2021 World Food Prize Laureate Photo: WorldFish

Dr Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, global lead for nutrition and public health at WorldFish, has been named the 2021 World Food Prize Laureate for her groundbreaking research, critical insights and landmark innovations in developing nutrition-sensitive approaches to aquatic food systems, including fisheries and aquaculture, and integrated food production from land and water.

Dr Thilsted is the first woman of Asian heritage to be awarded the World Food Prize.

Often referred to as the ‘Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture’, the World Food Prize is the most prominent global award recognising an individual who has enhanced human development and confronted global hunger through improving the quality, quantity and availability of food for all.

Life-changing benefits

Dr Thilsted was the first to examine the nutritional composition of small native fish species commonly found and consumed in Bangladesh and Cambodia. Her research demonstrated that the high levels of multiple essential micronutrients and fatty acids in these affordable and locally available foods offered life-changing benefits for children’s cognitive development in their first 1000 days of life and the nutrition and health of their mothers.

From this breakthrough, Dr Thilsted went on to develop nutrition-sensitive approaches and innovations to food production from land and water that have improved the diets, nutrition and health of millions of vulnerable women, men and children living in low and middle-income countries across Asia, Africa and the Pacific.

The award was announced during a webcast event hosted by the World Food Prize Foundation. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “Dr Thilsted figured out how these nutrient-rich small fish can be raised locally and inexpensively.

“Now, millions of low-income families across many countries, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Burma, Zambia, Malawi, are eating small fish regularly, dried and fresh, in everything from chutneys to porridge, giving kids and breastfeeding mothers key nutrients that will protect children for a lifetime. That is all thanks to her,”

Dr Thilsted said that she was truly honoured to receive the award. “I feel humbled to be placed in such distinguished ranks of past laureates,” she said.

“As a scientist, I feel this award is an important recognition of the essential but often overlooked role of fish and aquatic food systems in agricultural research for development. This award is a major acknowledgment of the urgent need to prioritise fish and aquatic foods in nutrition policies and program interventions at national and global levels.

“Aquatic foods offer life-changing opportunities for millions of vulnerable women, children and men to be healthy and well-nourished. It is also an important acknowledgment for the insights, voices and perspectives of millions of people from low and middle-income countries. These are crucial to shaping the global discourse on nutrition and public health, as well as our shared call to action for a sustainable food systems transformation towards healthier and resilient diets that work for people and the planet,” she added.

Discipline-spanning research

Dr Thilsted has many research innovations under her belt, the impact of which spans many different disciplines and sectors. For example, she is credited with developing the pond polyculture system, a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable way of farming small and large fish species together in homestead ponds, water bodies and rice fields.

This innovation, which helped to significantly increase the quality, diversity and quantity of available food in many local communities, prompted a large-scale shift towards aquaculture production in Bangladesh. In addition, it led the Government of Bangladesh to recognise the pond polyculture system as a critical innovation for meeting national targets to beat hunger, malnutrition, gender inequality and poverty.

Working together with local communities and private sector actors, Dr Thilsted guided the development of innovative, affordable and culturally acceptable fish-based products suitable for consumption by young children and lactating women. She discovered these products were nutrition powerhouses in their own right, and – when consumed with other foods – they also helped increase the absorption or bioavailability of other essential micronutrients found in vegetables and rice, such as iron and zinc.

Dr Thilsted’s other influential research work on harvesting and processing in fish and aquatic food systems have enabled women in the sector to overcome gender barriers, to increase the visibility of their work in and contributions to the aquatic foods sector, to improve their access to affordable, nutritious fish and other foods, to increase incomes and to create new business and economic opportunities.

In addition, her work has guided the development of national campaigns and community programs to raise awareness and improve knowledge about nutrition and the critical inclusion of fish and aquatic foods in healthy and balanced diets for malnourished women and children. Furthermore, university curricula across many low and middle-income countries reflect Thilsted’s work on nutrition, fish and aquatic food systems, inspiring a new generation of young scientists, food systems thinkers and nutrition and aquatic foods champions.

Transforming global food systems

WorldFish’s director general Gareth Johnstone said that that it was a much-deserved award for a world-class food systems thinker. “Dr Thilsted’s work on nutrition, fish, and aquatic foods challenges us to think very critically about the scope of agricultural research and the urgent call to action to transform global food systems towards healthy and sustainable diets for all,” he said.

“Traditionally, agricultural research, nutrition policies, and development interventions have predominantly focused on staple crops and livestock. They are also informed by narratives and contexts in the Global North. However, Thilsted’s trailblazing work on nutrition in Asia and Africa shows that fish and aquatic food systems are an integral part of food production, local diets, culture, child and maternal health and general wellbeing.

“Therefore, fish and aquatic foods must occupy a more central role in future nutrition-focused interventions and policy and investment decisions for agricultural research and development that consider the need for a holistic and sustainable transformation of all food systems in land and water,” he added.

From the research field to the highest level of policy, the impressive body of Dr Thilsted’s scientific work and innovations is helping to shift global narratives of food production to higher food systems thinking, from the discourse on feeding a growing global population to nourishing billions of people, nations and the planet.

Her nutrition-sensitive approaches to food production from land and water have put nutrition and public health outcomes at the forefront, with due consideration for equal access to and affordability of diverse nutritious foods for all and environmental health and sustainability.

Since 2010, Dr Thilsted has worked at WorldFish, an entity of CGIAR, the world’s largest research and innovation network. As the global lead for nutrition and public health, she shaped the formulation of the new disruptive 2030 WorldFish Research and Innovation Strategy: Aquatic Foods for Healthy People and Planet, which was launched at the end of 2020.

Dr Thilsted is part of the high-level panel of experts on food security and nutrition. She is also a UN food systems champion and the vice-chair for Action Track 4: Advance Equitable Livelihoods of the upcoming 2021 UN Food Systems Summit.

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