June 16, 2024

WorldFish scientist receives “Nobel Prize for Food & Agriculture”

Shakuntala Thilsted (right) with 2020 World Food Prize Laureate Rattan Lal (left) in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo by Finn Thilsted.

Dr. Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, Global Lead for Nutrition and Public Health at WorldFish, received today the 2021 World Food Prize for her groundbreaking research, critical insights and landmark innovations in developing nutrition-sensitive approaches to aquatic food systems, including fisheries and aquaculture, and integrated food production from land and water.

Thilsted is the first woman of Asian heritage to be awarded the World Food Prize.

World Food Prize Foundation President Barbara Stinson said: “Thilsted is the seventh woman to be awarded the World Food Prize and the first woman of Asian heritage. She is at the helm of some of our key action areas for global progress in the UN Decade of Action. She continues to stand at the forefront of innovation, pushing the boundaries of nutrition-sensitive food systems, truly changing the conversation from not just feeding our populations, to nourishing them.”

Shakuntala Thilsted presenting a Borlaug Lecture on ‘Aquatic Foods for Nourishing Nations’ at Iowa State University. Photo by Finn Thilsted.

Often referred to as the ‘Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture’, the World Food Prize is the most prominent global award recognizing an individual who has enhanced human development and confronted global hunger through improving the quality, quantity and availability of food for all.

Thilsted was the first to examine the nutritional composition of small indigenous fish species commonly found and consumed in Bangladesh and Cambodia. Her research demonstrated that the high levels of multiple essential micronutrients and fatty acids in these affordable and locally available foods offered life-changing benefits for children’s cognitive development in their first 1000 days of life and the nutrition and health of their mothers.

From this breakthrough, Thilsted went on to develop nutrition-sensitive approaches and innovations to food production from land and water that have improved the diets, nutrition and health of millions of vulnerable women, men and children living in low- and middle-income countries across Asia, Africa and the Pacific.

On the significance of the award, WorldFish Global Lead for Nutrition and Public Health and Vice Chair of the UN Food Systems Summit 2021 Action Track 4: Advance Equitable Livelihoods Dr. Shakuntala Thilsted said:

“As a scientist, I feel this award is an important recognition of the essential but often overlooked role of aquatic foods and aquatic food systems in agricultural research for development. This award is a major acknowledgment of the urgent need to prioritize aquatic foods in nutrition policies and program interventions at national and global levels.”

2021 World Food Prize Week: CGIAR 50th Anniversary Celebration

Hundreds of the world’s top agricultural leaders, professionals and experts gathered at the Iowa State Capitol to witness the 2021 World Food Prize Laureate Award Ceremony, which is part of the 2021 Norman E. Borlaug International Dialogue: Gaining Momentum – Food Systems Transformation in the Decade of Action and featured remarks from Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, World Food Prize Foundation President Barbara Stinson and Thilsted.

Distinguished guests at the ceremony were United States Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack and Mexican Secretary of Agriculture and Rural Development Víctor Manuel Villalobos Arámbula.

During her acceptance speech, Thilsted said:

“My work is just the beginning for us to understand and make full use of the potential of diverse aquatic food to transform food, land and water systems so that we can nourish all peoples and our planet. I call on young researchers and students to be inspired by my work and take it to new heights.”

A true food systems thinker, the impact of Thilsted’s research crosses over different disciplines and sectors. She is credited with developing the pond polyculture system, a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable way of farming small and large fish species together in homestead ponds, water bodies and rice fields. This innovation, which helped to significantly increase the quality, diversity and quantity of available food, prompted a large-scale shift towards aquaculture production in Bangladesh. In addition, it led the Government of Bangladesh to recognize the pond polyculture system as a critical innovation for meeting national targets to beat hunger, malnutrition, gender inequality and poverty.

On Thilsted’s achievement, WorldFish Director-General and CGIAR Senior Director of Aquatic Food Systems Dr. Gareth Johnstone said:

2021 World Food Prize Week: CGIAR 50th Anniversary Celebration

“This is a much-deserved award for a world-class food systems thinker, who challenges us to think differently and critically about the interconnected nature of different food production systems in land and water, about the nutritional value of fish and the rich diversity of aquatic foods, about the many opportunities aquatic foods represent as the new frontier for improving nutrition and public health, as well as the health and sustainability of our planet, and about why aquatic food systems have been an overlooked part of global food systems in terms of both research and investment.”

Working together with local communities and private sector actors, Thilsted guided the development of innovative, affordable and culturally acceptable fish-based products suitable for consumption by young children and lactating women. She discovered these products were nutrition powerhouses in their own right, and – when consumed with other foods – they also helped increase the absorption or bioavailability of other essential micronutrients found in vegetables and rice, such as iron and zinc.

Thilsted’s influential research work on harvesting and processing in fish and aquatic food systems have enabled women in the sector to overcome gender barriers, to increase the visibility of their work in and contributions to the aquatic foods sector, to improve their access to affordable, nutritious fish and other foods, to increase incomes, and to create new business and economic opportunities. In addition, her work has guided the development of national campaigns and community programs to raise awareness and improve knowledge about nutrition and the critical inclusion of fish and aquatic foods in healthy and balanced diets for malnourished women and children.

Fin clip collected for adult tilapia for genotyping and wet mount preparation. Photo by Jerome Delamare-Deboutteville, WorldFish.

CGIAR Systems Board Chair Dr. Marco Ferroni said:

“Congratulations to Shakuntala Thilsted, 2021 World Food Prize Laureate, along with deeply felt thanks, respect and appreciation for your life-long commitment to improved nutrition and human development outcomes through aquaculture and the demonstration of the potential of aquatic foods for improved diets, nourishment, livelihoods, equity and empowerment alike. You are a pioneer in food and nutrition systems transformation, an inspiration to us all at CGIAR.” 

From the research field to the highest level of policy, Thilsted’s scientific work and innovations is helping to shift global narratives of food production to higher food systems thinking, from the discourse on ‘feeding’ a growing global population to ‘nourishing’ billions of people, nations and the planet. Her nutrition-sensitive approaches to food production from land and water have put nutrition and public health outcomes at the forefront, with due consideration for equal access to and affordability of diverse nutritious foods for all, and environmental health and sustainability.

Since 2010, Thilsted has worked at WorldFish, an entity of CGIAR and an international, nonprofit research and innovation institution that creates, advances, and translates aquatic food systems science into scalable solutions. As the Global Lead for Nutrition and Public Health, she shaped the formulation of the new disruptive 2030 WorldFish Research and Innovation Strategy: Aquatic Foods for Healthy People and Planet, which was launched at the end of 2020.

This year, Thilsted was also awarded the 2021 Arrell Global Food Innovation Award. She is a member of the Steering Committee of the High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) on Food Security and Nutrition, Vice-Chair for Action Track 4: Advance Equitable Livelihoods of the UN Food Systems Summit 2021 and a U.N. Food Systems Champion.

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