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Diversity is key: Speaking with Dr. Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, winner of the 2021 World Food Prize

Dr. Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, Global Lead for Nutrition and Public Health at World Fish and winner of the 2021 World Food Prize. Photo courtesy Dr. Haraksingh Thilsted, used with permission.

With the climate crisis threatening the world's food systems, now compounded by the economic chasm brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, hunger mitigation and food security are front-burner issues. How do we implement eco-friendly agricultural methods, especially when farmers—many of them women—do not have a seat at the table? In Global South countries, many farmers are also unable to tap into financial support or secure land ownership.

Dr. Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted's work in this regard is pioneering, yet her solution is so simple: focus on culturally appropriate fish-based foods to improve nutrition in vulnerable communities and scale it up with support offered through government policies and development funding. Her approach was so successful that it won her the 2021 World Food Prize.

In this second instalment of my email interview with Dr. Haraksingh Thilsted (you can read the first part here), she discusses how her work as Global Lead for Nutrition and Public Health at World Fish, a CGIAR research centre in Malaysia, has helped to restructure and scale up community agriculture into low emission, high nutrition food systems in keeping with the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Janine Mendes-Franco (JMF): How important is it that initiatives like yours get support from governments, funding agencies and both private and public-sector organisations?

SHT: Policies, investments and programmes from governments are key. However, in many low- and middle-income countries, policy makers and government officials need to have knowledge of the multiple benefits of aquatic foods—for people, planet and national development. Global funding agencies can play a role in influencing governments and assisting with aid.

JMF: What types of policies and mindsets are critical to the success of a food programme like this?

SHT: Value the multiple benefits of diverse foods from oceans and inland waters—so, policies that protect and manage water systems and the diverse species of aquatic foods found in different waters. Water systems and aquatic foods must be included in policies from different sectors: education, nutrition and health, mother and child care programmes, school-feeding programmes, safety net programmes for the poor and vulnerable, not just to feed [but] also to nourish the poor and vulnerable, and leave no one behind. Immediate actions are needed as the numbers of those who are becoming malnourished and do not have access to nourishing foods are growing rapidly.

Dr. Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted making the keynote presentation at Accelerating the End of Hunger and Malnutrition – A Global Event, on November 29, 2018, in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo by Amanda Mustard for FAO/IFPRI on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

JMF: Most of your work has been done in Asia and Africa. How could your aquaculture initiative potentially be replicated in the Caribbean?

SHT: Aquaculture, nutrition-sensitive pond polyculture approaches, as I have promoted with diverse species of small and large fish, may be suitable for some of the larger islands. Production of some marine species, for example, seaweed [and] mussels may also be appropriate for some islands.

JMF: How did the government of Bangladesh help you scale the rollout from community level to national level? From there, how did the programme spread across Asia and Africa?

SHT: There are around four million homestead ponds in Bangladesh. The Government of Bangladesh banned the poisoning of ponds, [there was a common practice of killing off native fish before stocking ponds with large fish species], promoted the maintenance of native fish in the ponds and stocked micronutrient-rich fish species, using an assessment by BRAC [a Bangladesh-based development organisation] and Copenhagen Consensus that nutrition-sensitive pond polyculture is a cost-effective approach to combat malnutrition.

JMF: Explain how pond polyculture works in providing food and increasing biodiversity, to the extent where you also began to make spinoff foods from dried fish.

SHT: Benefits [include] increased production and productivity (no competition between species); diverse fish species, the small species being micronutrient-rich; increased nutritional content of the total production; increased consumption; increased income from sale; better environment [and] no poison used to clean the pond. [As far as the] dried fish from capture fisheries [goes]—both inland and coastal—sun-drying is a common practice. Dried small fish are very nutrient-dense, as the moisture content is removed and the nutrients are therefore concentrated, [making it] super food for young children: multiple nutrients with no bulk. Children have small gastro-intestinal tracts, and can only eat small amounts.

Dr. Haraksingh Thilsted's pond polyculture system is both an affordable and environmentally sustainable approach to aquaculture, as small and large species coexist in homestead ponds, rice fields and other bodies of water. Photo courtesy Dr. Haraksingh Thilsted, used with permission.

JMF: With pollution levels as they are across the world, there may be some reluctance to prioritise fish in people’s diets, given the high mercury levels in some bigger fish. In the Caribbean and Latin America, much of which has high and unregulated pesticide use, there are also concerns about effluents corrupting waterways and fish life.

SHT: Better management, better regulation, better education of the issues. Limit the intake of large carnivorous species, eat diverse species, eat smaller, faster-growing fish that do not accumulate much, eat seaweed.

JMF: Did your programme have an educational element to it? How were people encouraged to try a predominantly fish-based diet?

SHT: [The programme] included nutrition and health messaging and demonstrations to women, men and youth [as well as] engagement and training of women in the entire approach, [including] production systems.

JMF: Explain how diversity directly impacts equity. Must we shift our value system from one focused on profit to one focused on justice?

SHT: Equity and justice are paramount values that must be included along with monetary values. In food systems [like] pond polyculture, diversity can lead to a combination of multiple values. However, production is only one part of the system. The entire food system's framework must be considered. Trade-offs must be handled carefully, using solutions identified with communities’ [input].

JMF: How does this fit into proper stewardship of our oceans in the context of issues like overfishing, pollution and coral reef degradation?

SHT: Aquatic foods are from oceans and inland waters. Communities which live close to water bodies and depend on them for food, income, livelihoods, culture and identity must be considered and brought into the debate.

JMF: The COVID-19 pandemic has, in many ways, made food insecurity worse, but does it also offer developing nations especially an opportunity to rethink food systems? What can the average person do to bridge that gap?

SHT: There is a lot the average person can do: eat local, traditional, seasonal foods, learn to cook, eat meals with family and friends, reduce waste and loss, buy fresh foods, not foods wrapped in plastic [or] in tins, have a kitchen garden [or] plants in pots. Governments must make sure that the right to food is upheld and no one is left behind. School feeding, mother-and-child and safety net programmes are necessary for the poor and vulnerable—growing in numbers due to COVID-19.

JMF: What’s your ultimate aim?

SHT: Move from feeding to nourishing people, nations and planet. Making space for aquatic foods on the plate of diverse, nutritious, safe and affordable foods. Inspire young women from low- and middle-income countries to study science and take up a career in food and nutrition.

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