Dr. Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted is the 2021 World Food Prize Laureate for her influential work on nutrition, fish, and aquatic food systems. Often referred to as the "Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture," the World Food Prize is the most prominent global award recognizing exceptional individuals who have worked to enhance human development by improving the quality, quantity, and availability of food for all.
Dr. Thilsted is the first woman of Asian heritage to be awarded the World Food Prize. She was the first to examine the nutritional composition of small native 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, she went on to develop nutrition-sensitive approaches and innovations to food production, distribution, and consumption that have improved the diets, nutrition, and livelihoods of millions of vulnerable women, men, and children living in low- and middle-income countries across Asia, Africa, and the Pacific.
Her trailblazing work on nutrition in low- and middle-income countries in Asia and Africa show that fish and aquatic food systems are an integral part of food production, local diets, culture, child and maternal health, and general wellbeing. Her scientific findings demonstrate fish, and aquatic foods must occupy a more central role in future nutrition-focused interventions and policy and investment decisions for agricultural research and development and a sustainable transformation of food systems towards healthy and resilient diets.
A true food systems thinker, the impact of Dr. 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.
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.
Her scientific work on nutrition-sensitive approaches to food production from land and water have turned traditional thinking about agricultural research and food systems solutions on its head. She puts nutrition and public health outcomes at the heart of critical questions about how foods -- from land and water -- are produced, processed, transported, costed, distributed, and consumed. Dr. Thilsted's impressive body of research innovations is shifting the dial on global narratives of food production to higher food systems thinking from questions of 'feeding' a growing global population to a more enlightened discourse on 'nourishing' billions of people, nations, and our precious blue planet. In addition, her work on nutrition, fish, and aquatic food systems in low- and middle-income countries is inspiring a new generation of women in science, food systems thinkers, and aquatic foods champions.
A passionate and inspiring scientific leader at WorldFish, CGIAR, and globally, Dr. Thilsted's critical insights shaped the formulation of the new disruptive 2030 WorldFish Research and Innovation Strategy: Aquatic Foods for Healthy People and Planet.
She is a UN Food Systems Champion and serves as the Vice-Chair for Action Track 4: Advance Equitable Livelihoods of the upcoming 2021 UN Food Systems Summit. In addition, Dr. Thilsted is a member of the High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition and advises the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy.
A native of Trinidad and Tobago and a citizen of Denmark, she received her bachelor of science degree in Tropical Agriculture from The University of West Indies. She completed her post-graduate and doctorate studies in nutrition physiology at the University of Copenhagen. A CGIAR scientist, Dr. Thilsted is currently the Global Lead for Nutrition and Public Health at WorldFish, working to bring aquatic foods to the heart of the global science and policy discourse on sustainable food systems transformation towards healthy and resilient diets.
Meet the Laureate
Life and achievements
Perspectives and blogs
Harnessing diversity within aquatic food systems is key to food and nutrition security
Small-scale aquatic food producers, processors and traders are integral to food and nutrition security in low- and middle- income countries, but their contributions are often undervalued and underreported...
A gendered approach to nutrition-sensitive homestead pond polyculture
A recent paper, “Homestead pond polyculture can improve access to nutritious small fish”, published in the journal Food Security investigates an aquaculture production system in Bangladesh...
Presentations and Multimedia
CFS Partner Event: Building Forward Better with Aquatic Foods
This CFS High-Level Special Event on Food Security and Nutrition partner event took a unique approach by bringing geographically diverse and multisector representatives together to mobilize and coordinate a global movement ..