Thanks to nutrition expert Shakuntala Thilsted, who grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, millions of low-income families across Asia and Africa have access to affordable and locally available fish that provide vital nutrients for children’s cognitive development in their first 1000 days of life.
Thilsted, who is currently Global Lead for Nutrition and Health at international research NGO WorldFish, recently became the 2021 World Food Prize Laureate of the World Food Prize, also know as the “Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture,” for her work in documenting the essential micro nutrients in Mola and Changwa – two hugely popular and commonly consumed fish species in Bangladesh and Cambodia.
“The data and the research on the nutritional value of the local fish species was not there,” she says, adding that between her field research work in Bangladesh and lab work at the University of Copenhagen, she was able to demonstrated high levels of multiple essential micronutrients and fatty acids in these fish.
“Hardly anyone had thought of creating food products based on fish that were suitable for consumption by young children from the age of 6 months onwards, which is the recommended age for complementary feeding.
“The evidence was overwhelming!” Thilsted says,”The high levels of multiple essential micro-nutrients in these local fish species could offer life-changing benefits to children’s cognitive development and growth, particularly in their first 1000 days of life, as well as for their mothers.”
Thilsted says that fish and aquatic foods are now part of school feeding programs in Cambodia and in the Indian states of Odisha and Assam, which is now improving the flow of nutrient-rich foods that are essential for the cognitive development of children, mothers and adolescent girls.
Thilsted says she remembers returning to a rural village in Bangladesh, where she’d been doing research work with local women and they came, elated to greet her in droves.
“They said, ‘Please come, let us show you, the ‘pushti bacha’ (well-nourished, healthy children)'” she says, adding that these special heart-warming moments remind her that the academic work actually means something, to someone, in the real world.
Kitchen hearth to nutrition expert
Thilsted was born in Trinidad and Tobago, where she was raised in what she describes as a “progressive Hindu family.”
“Food and a good education were second only to religion,” she says, “I grew up in a household of four generations of women and the kitchen was the beating heart of my childhood home.”
Thilsted says it is because of this, it was only natural that her academic studies and career would focus on food and nutrition. In the late 1980s she was working at the International Center for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It was there that she saw some of the more than 7,000 malnourished children that were being admitted annually and saw the context of her future work.
“When we look at food production from a nutrition perspective, it fundamentally changes the way we think about the entire food system – and all the actors involved, from production all the way to consumption,” she says, adding that for her, research questions aren’t restricted to a narrow focus on food production activities.
Thilsted says there is now growing momentum around the global call to action to radically transform food systems towards healthy and resilient diets.
“I often like to say that the goal or question of food production should not only be about just ‘feeding’ a growing world population,” Thilsted says, “Rather, it should be about ‘feeding and nourishing’ all people and all nations, and also sustaining the health of our planet in the long term.”
Another fisheries researcher making a difference in the Global South is Chin Yee Chan. She grew up in a Malaysian city surrounded by hills, but now looks at how fish consumption and production trends can predict whether communities will have enough to eat in future.
Chan, also based at WorldFish, says her research helps decision-makers to explore plausible future scenarios to prioritize investments and policy interventions.