Fish are a crucial part of the diet for more than 1 billion people, being a rich source of macronutrients.
On May 11, 2021, the World Food Prize Foundation announced its 2021 laureate is Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted.
Her research has helped to improve farming practices and increase awareness of the importance of these foods.
Fish and other aquatic foods are integral to diets for more than 1 billion people worldwide. Most of these people live in low- and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, close to rivers, lakes or the sea.
In these regions, foods like fresh and dried fish are central to local cuisines, and are often cheaper or more available than alternatives like eggs, dairy products and fruit. These “aquatic superfoods” pack an outsized punch as rich sources of micronutrients that are essential to human health and cognitive development.
Nonetheless, aquatic foods are often on the margins of mainstream agricultural research, nutrition policies and development strategies. Traditionally, global development thinkers have focused on staple crops and livestock as solutions to hunger.
On May 11, 2021, the World Food Prize Foundation announced that its 2021 laureate is Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, a nutrition scientist who in my view has done more than anyone to draw attention to the essential but often overlooked role of aquatic foods in sustainable healthy diets. This US$250,000 prize is often referred to as the Nobel Prize for food and agriculture. It was established by Norman Borlaug, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work in global agriculture.
This year’s award recognizes Thilsted’s four decades of work to improve nutrition and health for millions of malnourished children and their mothers in Asia and Africa. As an aquaculture researcher who works closely with Thilsted, I believe this award spotlights the need to prioritize fish and aquatic foods in nutrition policies and actions, nationally and globally.
Shakuntala Thilsted was born in Trinidad and Tobago, where she started her pathbreaking career as the only woman employed in the Ministry of Agriculture, Lands and Fisheries. After moving to Denmark, she completed a Ph.D. at the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University, where she later went on to lead the Department of Animal Physiology.
Moving to Bangladesh in the late 1980s, Thilsted worked at the icddr,b, an institute formerly known as the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, which treated more than 6,000 malnourished children annually. As a young mother of two children, she was instinctively concerned about child health and nutrition and began investigating measures to prevent malnutrition using locally available and culturally acceptable foods.
Extensive time in the field designing and implementing a nutrition rehabilitation program allowed Thilsted to understand what foods people were eating and how. Listening to women talk about the importance of eating small fish for good health and eyesight piqued her interest in their nutritional value. This insight provided the catalyst for the next three decades of her research career.
On returning to Denmark, Thilsted began teaching graduate students at the University of Copenhagen to analyze micronutrients in fish from Bangladesh. This research revealed that many species of small fish are rich in nutrients that are important for human health.
In 2010, Thilsted joined the international research institute WorldFish. She returned to Bangladesh to work at scaling up “nutrition-sensitive approaches” to fish production, building on insights from her earlier research.
Thilsted also began investigating ways to deliver micronutrients to mothers and children using fish-based products such as powders, chutneys and wafers as a culturally appropriate way to enhance their diets. WorldFish has promoted these innovations widely to countries including Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Malawi, Sierra Leone and Zambia.
Thilsted has worked tirelessly to translate key insights from her research into public policy. This has included partnering closely with governments, such as the State Government of Odisha, India, which recently began including dried fish in food rations that it provides to vulnerable groups.
Thilsted has lived for many years in the countries where she seeks to create positive change. She is passionate about spending time in the field, observing carefully and asking the right questions.
Two billion people in the world currently suffer from malnutrition and according to some estimates, we need 60% more food to feed the global 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 the world’s 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 fallen 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, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, the platform is working with over 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.
This spirit of inquiry and extensive hands-on experience, combined with high standards of academic rigor, have given rise to many of her most important insights. For example, she found that wild capture fisheries and fish farming can both make highly complementary contributions to food and nutrition security.
As I have seen firsthand, Thilsted also has a unique ability to connect with people irrespective of their social status, from women farmers in rural Bangladesh to high officials at the United Nations. Generations of young scientists, myself included, have flourished under her mentorship and have been inspired by her remarkable vision, persistence, generosity and commitment to nourishing people and the planet.
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.