Aquaculture research pioneer named winner of the 2021 World Food Prize


Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, global nutrition and public health leader at WorldFish, was recently announced the recipient of the 2021 World Food Prize for her achievements in pioneering fish-based food systems to improve nutrition, health and livelihoods.

Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Thilsted has spent her career helping develop productive aquaculture practices for smallholder farmers, including polyculture pond systems. She created and helped spread the use of nutritious fish foods, such as fish chutney and fish powder – dried fish foods with four times the nutrient density of fresh fish.

She encouraged processing practices that reduce wastage of fish and increase the income of the women entrepreneurs who make them. Over the years, she has worked with farmers, food processors and consumers to develop aquatic food systems that serve vulnerable populations. She is also the first woman to be a civil servant in the Ministry of Agriculture, Lands and Fisheries in Tobago.

“Dr Thilsted is the seventh woman to receive the World Food Prize and the first woman of Asian descent,” Barbara Stinson, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, said at a conference. press earlier this week. “Dr Thilsted is leading our global progress on the United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition. She holds the distinguished roles of champion and vice-chair of Action Track 4, ” do advancing equitable livelihoods ”, from the United Nations Food Systems Summit for 2021. It guides the summit’s work related to building sustainable and equitable value chains that reduce risk and enable entrepreneurship. . at all levels.”

Help fight hunger

The announcement of the 2021 laureate included recorded remarks by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and UN President on Nutrition Naoko Yamamoto, with Stinson announcing the winner’s name.

Blinken noted that Thilsted conducted groundbreaking research on small species of fish rich in essential nutrients and minerals, including vitamin A, vitamin B12, iron, zinc, and calcium. These are vital for the growth and development of the brain, especially in young children during the first 1000 days of pregnancy until the age of 2.

“Dr. Thilsted discovered how these small, nutrient-rich fish can be bred locally and inexpensively,” Blinken says. “Today, millions of low-income families in many countries, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Burma, Zambia and Malawi, regularly eat small, dried and fresh fish, in everything from chutneys to porridge, giving children and nursing mothers essential nutrients. that will protect children all their lives. It’s all because of her. “

Vilsack noted that Thilsted pioneered more productive and environmentally friendly fish farming methods, helped develop culturally appropriate fish foods, and promoted nutrition-focused practices and policies among communities. , researchers and government agencies.

“We all know that aquaculture represents an important opportunity to develop the global circular economy through the use of waste with agricultural by-products and insects fed with agricultural waste, increasingly contributing to the feeding of high quality fish, ”Vilsack says. “As our world population grows, we will need a variety of low-emission, high-nutrient food sources such as aquaculture. This is going to be crucial in feeding the world while reducing our impact on the climate. Dr Thilsted has been a leader in this effort and is certainly a worthy recipient of the World Food Prize this year. “

Yamamoto said Thilsted’s research is helping deliver healthy and sustainable food to vulnerable populations.

“Small fish are an accessible and affordable source of animal food that helps diversify diets and fill nutrient gaps. Sustainability is especially important. Sustainability requires a holistic approach that avoids contaminating water with residues. of pesticides and microplastics, ”Yamamoto says. “2021 is a special year for nutrition. We are at the midpoint of a Decade of Action on Nutrition, the United Nations Summit on Food Systems and the Nutrition for Growth Summit. Dr. Thilsted is taking crucial research to the top, and U..N Nutrition is honored to have her as the author of our new discussion paper on Aquatic Foods in Healthy, Sustainable Diets. “

Career turning point

Thilsted said a turning point in her career came in the late 1980s when she was working at the International Diarrheal Disease Research Center in Bangladesh. At the time, more than 6,000 malnourished children were admitted for treatment each year. Thilsted worked in the nutritional rehabilitation unit, researching ways to treat and prevent malnutrition in children and their mothers through locally available and acceptable foods.

AQUACULTURE PIONEER: Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted has helped develop practices for small farmers, including the polyculture pond system, where small species of micronutrient-rich fish are reared along with larger fish like carp and fish. tilapia.

“I remember thinking about the old proverb from Bangladesh, ‘Mache bhate Bengali’, and that means fish and rice make Bengali,” she said. “I wondered why the fish was placed before the staple food, rice.”

So when Thilsted returned to the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, she began teaching and researching the nutritional value of local fish species.

And that’s when we had our ‘aha moment.’ These little fish species, for example, Mola from Bangladesh and trey changwa chuhn chuak [silver flying fox] from Cambodia, have very high levels of multiple essential micronutrients, “she said.

Working with industry

Over the years, Thilsted has worked with students, researchers, fishermen, field staff, community leaders and policy makers to promote and increase the production and consumption of species rich in micronutrients.

Thilsted has also helped develop practices for small farmers, including the polyculture pond system, where small, micronutrient-rich fish species are reared along with larger fish like carp and tilapia.

“At that time, the current practice was to use pesticides to remove all native fish from the pond, and then to stock the pond only with large fish. We stopped this practice, keeping the small fish in the pond. pond, then stocking the pond with big and small fish, ”she said. “Our research over the years has shown that there are a number of advantages to growing both small, micronutrient-rich fish and large-sized fish in polyculture ponds. times the quantity and the overall nutritional value of the total fish production. “

Thilsted and his team have also worked with local community partners to create fish products like fish chutney, fish powder, complementary foods and snacks, which are particularly suitable for the consumption of young children and children. pregnant women.

This year will be a momentous year for decisive action, Thilsted said – and this is especially true with the upcoming United Nations Food Systems Summit.

“If there is one thing we have learned from the previous year, it is the fragility of our food systems and the crucial challenge we face in radically transforming our food systems for all. In 2021, that challenge is even bigger in the face of climate change, locust infestations in Africa and the road to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, “Thilsted says. “We now have the opportunity to make better progress. And in this way, we can make our food systems more resilient to future shocks.”

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