“We must move from a focus on quantity, from a focus on single food items, single food groups, and move to a food systems approach where we start with the plate of food and the combination of foods, of diverse foods on the plate.” That, in a nutshell, is how Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted summed up her philosophy in an interview. It’s a mindset that makes her a pathbreaker—and now a legend—in food security.
Dr. Thilsted was awarded the 2021 World Food Prize, becoming the 51st laureate, the seventh female honoree, and the first woman of Asian heritage to win. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago and a citizen of Denmark, Dr. Thilsted today is a lead researcher at World Fish, a division of CGIAR, where she’s kept busy studying and advocating for nutritious aquatic foods for 10 years. She’ll play a pivotal role in the UN Food Systems Summit happening this month in Rome, where she aims to bring in more marginalized voices to the conversation on food security. In a wide-ranging interview, Dr. Thilsted discussed with Grow Further the path that led her to focus on fish and aquatic foods, her vision for the future of agricultural research, and where she thinks Grow Further’s model of philanthropy might lend a hand in the fight against hunger and malnutrition.
Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted is the newest World Food Prize laureate for her success in raising the profile of small-scale aquaculture, an innovation that continues to change the world. A nutrition scientist by training, Dr. Thilsted’s career took her from a government position to work with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and eventually to a research assignment in Bangladesh in the late 1980s. “I was working in Bangladesh with malnourished children and their mothers,” she recalled for us. “I have a very strong education background in agriculture and in nutritional physiology. So, I went back to those backgrounds and started with the role that diets can play not only in treating malnourishment but in preventing malnourishment.” She didn’t initially intend to zero in on fish, she said, but rather landed there by a process of elimination. “I began working with rice,” she said. “I worked with rice, I worked with vegetables, and then I started working with fish.”
That turned out to be a fortuitous decision. Dr. Thilsted was the first to investigate the nutritional composition of the most commonly consumed species of fish in Bangladesh. This led to her groundbreaking revelation: “Fish in Bangladesh presents itself as a superfood for meeting nutrient needs, especially the needs for micronutrients and for essential fatty acids,” she explained. Perhaps equally important, she noticed how Bangladeshis typically dry their fish for better storage and transportation, a practice common in Africa as well. “When you remove the moisture content from fish, then you are concentrating the nutrients,” she emphasized. “So it becomes even more of a superfood which is easy to store, easy to use, which is convenient, and which you can buy in small amounts.” That’s how Dr. Thilsted found her weapon in the fight against child malnutrition: consumption of more dried fish protein.
Dr. Thilsted pioneered the small pond mixed-species inland aquaculture systems that the government of Bangladesh today actively promotes. And she developed new products, including fish powders and a specialized fish chutney for pregnant and lactating women. Food security experts are often wary of trying out untested products, but Dr. Thilsted says she succeeded by going with what was already familiar to the population. “Starting with that base of dried fish was easy because it was already known, it was already accepted.” And just adding a small amount of fish powder to a meal can make a huge nutritional difference, she said.
“The nutrient components that are found in fish are much more highly available. They absorb better than the nutrients from plant-source foods,” she explained. “That makes it much more powerful as a nutrient.”
During our conversation, Dr. Thilsted explored why food and nutrition advocates neglected aquatic foods for so long, and where she’s trying to bring this conversation.
Q: Why haven’t fish and aquatic foods played a major part in the discussion on food security for so long?
A: “If you go back to the Green Revolution that was a time when there was starvation in parts of the world and the first issue that you want to serve is filling people’s stomachs, giving them food. And I guess the easiest way to do this is by concentrating on the staple foods. For example, rice in Asia and maize in Africa. But we’ve evolved from that stage.”
“We do have the potential to shift from just feeding to nourishing, and aquatic foods have been unrecognized for their role in nourishing because the focus has been on terrestrial production of foods.”
“This is a new field. I was the first to look at the nutrient composition of fish species in Bangladesh. And people knew about it because if you talked to people in Bangladesh, if you talked to women in Bangladesh, they would tell you stories like ‘when we have more water we see better.’ Then you will have to fill in those gaps. More water brings more fish. More fish contains retinol and dehydroretinol. Retinol and dehydroretinol are crucial for good vision.”
Grow Further: During the World Food Prize award ceremony, you said you were aiming to change mindsets. What specifically did you have in mind?
Thilsted: “I work with researchers, and their starting point is production systems and inputs for raising production. My starting point is consumption and what consumption shows us, the foods that make up consumption, and the nutrient composition of the foods that are consumed.”
“It all belongs to, now, the framework of food systems, from production to consumption…one end gives you very different perspectives than starting at the other end.”
Grow Further: Where would you like to go next in your research?
Thilsted: “It’s not just the single food items that make up the meal as foods on the plate, but it’s the interaction between the different foods.”
“We know that aquatic foods can enhance the absorption of nutrients from plant-sourced foods. But no one has worked on that area yet.”
“I just made my case to CGIAR—I hope that we will go much further than that.”
Grow Further: You seem convinced that there is plenty of potential left for innovations in aquatic foods.
Thilsted: “I’ve just touched the surface. There are so many diverse aquatic foods consumed throughout the world: animals, plants, microorganisms. And I think a good focus would be on diversity, to try to broaden the range of aquatic foods that we work with.”
“If I were to name one that I think holds great potential, for example, seaweed. In Bangladesh now there are women groups who are growing seaweed, and it’s a form of livelihood. But seaweed is not a food that’s used commonly in Bangladesh.”
“Knowing the nutritional value of seaweed, we should find ways in which we can incorporate seaweed into the diets of the Bangladeshi population, especially the poor and vulnerable.”
Grow Further: Are there any areas in which a model like Grow Further’s could prove beneficial?
Thilsted: “If you take the COVID-19 pandemic, it has hit hard, especially the poor and vulnerable. And countries now have to put into place for the poor and vulnerable programs for food rations, school feeding.”
“We are still using this notion of quantity and amounts, but not so much about quality and nourishing.”
“I think a very good small initiative could be working with groups of, if I would give an example, in Malawi where we have groups of women who are now using solar drying as a form of drying the small fish from Lake Malawi. And getting these foods, this dried fish, into the rations that are now being used for mother and child healthcare programs and school feeding.”
“I do think that’s a powerful way of trying to merge production systems with supply systems, and with nourishment. And with people that can go a long way, and also show what can be done. And nothing has happened yet. It could be great if you could take on just a small area and do a pilot in this area.”
“Instead of just giving out packets of maize, what if together with the big packet of maize you can give a small packet of dried fish?”
“So that’s something I think you should look at.”
— Grow Further