Sustainable nutrition: Speaking with Dr. Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, winner of the 2021 World Food Prize

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.

On May 11, Trinidad and Tobago-born Dr. Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, a nutritional scientist who is also a Danish citizen, was announced as the winner of the 2021 World Food Prize, in recognition of her 40 years of ground-breaking work improving the health of millions of people in the Global South.

The foundation that bestows the prestigious honour each year was founded in 1986 by 1970 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and “Father of the Green Revolution” Dr. Norman Borlaug. The prize, worth 250,000 United States dollars, recognises individuals who find ways of improving people's quality of life by sustainably enhancing the global food supply.

Dr. Haraksingh Thilsted was chosen for her “groundbreaking research, her critical insights and landmark innovations” in understanding and promoting the importance of aquatic food. By devising “holistic, nutrition-sensitive approaches to aquaculture” with her network of international collaborators, Dr. Haraksingh Thilsted succeeded in boosting the nutrition of millions of vulnerable people around the world while securing their livelihoods by building more resilient ecosystems into the bargain.

In the 1980s—the same decade that the World Food Prize Foundation was formed—while working at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease and Research in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dr. Haraksingh Thilsted was deeply affected by the large number of children suffering from malnutrition; she decided to try improving the nutritional value of their diets by creating a food system using small, native fish as a staple. Her idea soon became a movement: people began raising fish locally and inexpensively, transforming the diets and livelihoods of impoverished communities in Asia and Africa, where food insecurity was a concern.

In this two-part interview post (you can read the second instalment here), Dr. Haraksingh-Thilsted spoke to me via email about her passion for nutrition and the many people she's been able to help.

Janine Mendes-Franco (JMF): What has been the most satisfying part of your journey and what impact will the prize have on your work?

Dr. Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted (SHT): Being able to work with communities, mothers and children and knowing that my work can have a positive impact on their lives. Working with younger researchers and students and being able to [impart] knowledge to them, which they can carry further in their work and benefit communities. I hope that getting this award will give me a platform to change the way we look at [and] work with food systems—moving the narrative from ‘just feeding’ to ‘nourishing.’ Also, getting this award I hope will inspire young people, [especially] young women, to study science and take up a career in food and nutrition.

JMF: What drove you to rethink how people could be fed nutritiously en masse?

SHT: Working with severely malnourished children and their mothers [in Bangladesh], I witnessed first-hand the power of diverse, nutritious foods in keeping people well-nourished and healthy. This can be done sustainably, through employing very many pathways […] producing diverse foods; paying attention to quantity as well as quality, nutritional quality and food safety; consuming sufficient [food], not excess; greatly reducing food waste and loss.

Dr. Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, winner of the 2021 World Food Prize for her trailblazing scientific work in making aquatic food systems an integral part of sustainable food production, thereby relieving hunger, aiding livelihoods and increasing all-round resilience. Photo courtesy Dr. Haraksingh Thilsted, used with permission.

JMF: How did your Caribbean roots factor into how you thought about this problem of food security? What made you look to the sea when most people think of agriculture as land-based?

SHT: Growing up in Trinidad and in a home in which my grandmother ruled the kitchen, I did not think of the issue of some people facing food insecurity. My grandmother instilled in us the value of healthy food for good brain—[including] fish—and for being strong. Working in Bangladesh, the most nutritious food in the diet, small fish, comes from water. The sea is not the only source of aquatic foods. Inland waters—lakes, rivers, seasonal water bodies, floodplains—are extremely important sources of diverse aquatic foods [like] animals, plants, seaweed. Two-thirds of the planet is covered by water, so we must make use of this potential for harvesting and growing diverse, nutritious foods, sustainably.

JMF: Does it matter that you’re a woman scientist, the first woman of Asian heritage and the first from the Caribbean to receive this prize?

SHT: Yes; it matters to show to young people, from all backgrounds and countries, that there are opportunities. Studying hard, working hard, and learning from/listening to others are good habits to develop. I do hope that getting this award will show young women that a career in food and nutrition can be exciting and rewarding.

JMF: Explain the difference between feeding and nourishing, and what it means for long-term food sustainability.

SHT: In the past […] famine and food shortage [were] many times not related to a lack of food, but to power, distribution, trade, war, water scarcity, and pests. People were taken up with not being hungry, filling their stomachs. So just ‘quantity’ was the goal; now we know that we [must] think of nutritional quality and food safety. Today, many people are eating too much of staple foods—rice, wheat, maize, oil, meats—with […] very little fruits, vegetables and aquatic foods [which are] the source of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids. So people can be overweight and at the same time be suffering from ‘hidden hunger': lack of vitamins and minerals. A well-nourished woman gives birth to a well-nourished child who grows up to do well in school, work well, is healthy, and thereby contributes to national development, inter-generationally.

JMF: When was the first time it struck you that your work, in making this shift, was making a difference in people’s lives?

SHT: In Bangladesh, in the 1990s, mothers [would] tell me about their health and that of their children when they ate small fish and vegetables and fed these foods to their young children. I would hear the same feedback in the other countries where I worked: Cambodia, Nepal, India, Malawi, Zambia.

In the second part of this post, Dr. Haraksingh Thilsted discusses pond polyculture, the importance of biodiversity, the impact of the climate crisis, and the role governments and strong policy frameworks play in food security.

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