Dr Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted now takes the reins as the first woman of Asian heritage to be awarded the World Food Prize. This is in recognition of her achievements pioneering fish-based food systems to improve nutrition, health, and livelihoods for millions around the globe.

Thilsted led research revealing that raising different fish varieties together increases total production as well as the nutritional value of the production, said the World Food Prize Foundation.

Dr Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted is the first woman of Asian descent to be inducted as a World Food Prize Laureate. Photo: Supplied/World Fish Centre

The nutrition expert was honoured in a virtual ceremony hosted in Des Moines, Iowa.

Thilsted scooped the coveted title for her research developing pond polyculture systems, in which small and large fish species are farmed together in water bodies and rice field ponds.

Accepting her prestigious award, Thilsted said, “I am truly honoured to receive the 2021 World Food Prize, and I am deeply humbled to be placed in such distinguished ranks as those of past laureates.”

Thilsted’s breakthrough research has helped prioritise increases in fish consumption and production, transforming the diets and incomes of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

World Food Prize
United Nations Nutrition Chair Naoko Yamamoto. Photo: Supplied/World Bank

The Danish citizen with Trinidadian roots added, “This award is an important recognition of the essential but often overlooked role of fish and aquatic food systems in agricultural research for development.

“Fish and aquatic foods offer life-changing opportunities for millions of vulnerable women, children and men to be healthy and well-nourished.”

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‘Malnutrition is a global concern’

Leaders, including United States secretary of state Antony Blinken and United Nations Nutrition chairperson Naoko Yamamoto, praised Thilsted’s achievements.

World Food Prize
United States secretary of state, Antony Blinken. Photo: Supplied/US government

“Nutrition is everybody’s business,” said Yamamoto.

“Every country, every sector has a role to play. Good nutrition can improve human capital and drive sustainable development.

“We are proud of Dr Thilsted’s work is highlighting how aquatic foods can benefit both human health and the environment,” Yamamoto added. 

In a pre-recorded address, Blinken said, “Dr Thilsted figured out how these nutrient-rich small fish can be raised locally and inexpensively.”

Blinken added, “Millions of low-income families across many countries, 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 Dr Thilsted.” 

Vilsack stressed that the world needed diverse sources of low emission, high-nutrition food to keep up with the demand of the growing global population.

World Food Prize
Secretary of agriculture in the United States, Thomas Vilsack. Photo: Supplied/US department of agriculture

Vilsack said, “It 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 certainly a worthy recipient of the World Food Prize this year.”

Thilsted descends from a family of Indian Hindu migrants to Trinidad and Tobago.

She began her career as the first and only woman stationed in Tobago’s ministry of agriculture, lands, and fisheries.

In Bangladesh, where her research on fish began with long-term support from Danish International Development Assistance (DANIDA), Thilsted’s fish-based approach is now globally recognized as more cost-effective at supplying nutrients than vegetable gardening, prompting the government to promote pond polyculture as a means of tackling malnutrition.

‘Malnutrition perpetuates generations’

World Food Prize
President of the World Food Prize Foundation, Barbara Stinson. Photo: World Food Prize

Vilsack’s remarks were echoed by the president of the World Food Prize Foundation, Barbara Stinson, who further lauded her achievement.

Stinson said, “She is at the helm of our global progress in the UN Decade of Action and continues to stand at the forefront of innovation, pushing the boundaries of nutrition-sensitive food systems, truly changing the conversation from not just feeding populations but nourishing them.”

The chairperson of the World Food Prize council of advisors, Paul Schickler, said, “The choice of Dr Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted as the 2021 World Food Prize laureate by the selection committee precisely meets the qualities envisioned by the award’s founder and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr Norman Borlaug, increasing, and improving food production through scientific discovery.”

World Food Prize
Dr Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted is the Global Lead for Nutrition and Public Health at WorldFish, a Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) research centre headquartered in Malaysia. Photo: Supplied/World Fish

Gebisa Ejeta is the chairperson of the World Food Prize laureate selection committee.

He said, “Dr Thilsted is credited for developing an innovative farming system through fisheries, aquaculture, and related value chains to dramatically impact the food supply, nutrition, and health of poor people living in vulnerable environments.”

“The selection committee recognised her remarkable research and development achievement that is shaping food systems to be more sustainable, resilient and equitable for everyone.”

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Meet the new World Food Prize winner

  • Thilsted’s research has led to the development of a highly nutritious fish chutney, inspired by her own grandmother’s recipe, and fish powder, helping improve the diets of millions of pregnant and breastfeeding women and their children.
  • Thilsted is the Global Lead for Nutrition and Public Health at WorldFish, a consultative group for International Agricultural Research in Malaysia.
  • While working at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Bangladesh, Thilsted established a kitchen garden at the malnutrition rehabilitation center where more than 6 000 children were admitted every year.
  • Fuelled by a desire to battle malnutrition, Thilsted began researching the role of fish and aquaculture, working with international organisations, including Unicef, the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the World Bank and, since 2010, World Fish.
  • She also holds leadership roles in the United Nations Food Systems Summit 2021 and the High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition.

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