World Food Prize granted for research on nutritional importance of seafood

Dr. Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, the global lead for nutrition and public health at WorldFish, has been named the 2021 World Food Prize Laureate for her research into developing nutrition-sensitive approaches to aquatic food systems, including fisheries and aquaculture, and integrated food production from land and water.

Sometimes referred to as “the Nobel Prize for food and agriculture,” Thilsted’s research has been praised by the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) and represents the first time a woman of Asian heritage has been awarded the prize. Her research delved into the nutritional composition of small native fish species that are typically consumed in Bangladesh and Cambodia.

Through her research, Thilsted proved that high levels of essential micronutrients and fatty acids can be found in the small, affordable, and locally-available fish species, which “offered life-changing benefits for children's cognitive development in their first 1000 days of life and the nutrition and health of their mothers,” a press release from WorldFish states.

Through the work, Thilsted created “nutrition-sensitive approaches” to food production that has improved the diets of millions of vulnerable men, women, and children living in low- and middle-income countries in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. Her research found that fish-based products can help increase the bioavailability of micronutrients found in other foods, and serve as “nutrition powerhouses.”

“Dr. Thilsted’s work has helped scientists understand just how beneficial fish can be. She’s shown that fish not only provides essential micronutrients and fatty acids, but also improves the absorption of nutrients from traditional agrarian staples,” Registered Dietitian for NFI Jennifer McGuire said.

According to WorldFish, Thilsted is credited with creating the “pond polyculture” system, a sustainable way of farming small and large fish species together in ponds, water bodies, and rice fields. The new system increased the diversity of available food in communities, and led the government of Bangladesh to recognize it as a “critical innovation” for meeting nutrition targets in the country.  

Thilsted also created and guided campaigns raising awareness about the importance of including fish in healthy and balanced diets.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised Thilsted’s work during his announcement of the award.

"Dr. Thilsted figured out how these nutrient-rich small fish can be raised locally and inexpensively. Now, millions of low-income families across many countries, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Burma, Zambia, Malawi, 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,” Antony said. “That is all thanks to her."   

Thilsted said the award is a recognition of the importance of seafood.

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

Photo courtesy of WorldFish  


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