Dr. Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted has had a trailblazing career as a researcher in harnessing the use of aquaculture and capture fisheries to fulfill the nutritional needs of rural communities, specifically women and children in Asia and Africa. In 2021, Thilsted was awarded the World Food Prize, known as the Nobel Prize for food and agriculture, in recognition of her illustrious work.
Thilsted now serves as the Director of the Nutrition, Health and Food Security Impact Area Platform, CGIAR. She was the Global Lead for Nutrition and Public Health, at WorldFish, a CGIAR research center, with headquarters in Malaysia. CGIAR is a global research partnership for a food-secure future, dedicated to transforming food, land, and water systems in a climate crisis. The Dutch government is a long-time donor and strategic partner of CGIAR.
We had the opportunity to interview Shakuntala to learn more about her work and achievements. Here, we share a few of the highlights from this conversation.
You have a distinguished career in food and nutrition security. What fuels your passion?
During the early phase of my career, I worked in Bangladesh, at a nutrition rehabilitation unit for malnourished children. In time, my focus shifted to working with some of the more common Bangladeshi foods. First starting with rice, as the staple crop and the major food in the diet, in terms of quantity, and then, shifting to a focus on traditional vegetables, which are consumed together with rice. Delving further into the importance of nutrition, I started to concentrate on fish in the diet, especially indigenous small fish species, which are also common in the Bangladeshi diet, and found my calling.
This journey culminated in receiving the World Food Prize, in 2021. A great recognition for the importance of aquatic foods, for example, fish in making diets nutritious. It is a superfood! Aquatic foods are nutritional powerhouses, with essential vitamins (e.g. A, B12), minerals (e.g. calcium, iron and zinc), and essential fatty acids. These nutrients are all vital for the health, development, and cognition of young children. Especially the first 1000 days of life, referring to a child’s life from conception until two years of age, are extremely important. We all know that a strong start reverberates throughout life and can even have intergenerational benefits. That is why I feel that working on harnessing the potential of aquatic food systems is so important.
Sculpting a healthier future: what should be a key priority in this field of work?
Shifting the spotlight to the nutritional requirements of people is important. It is crucial to depart from a singular focus on the production of a handful of staple foods, towards adopting a people-centered approach. Such an approach will take into consideration cultural nuances, geographical differences, and the influence of seasonality. By using this rich diversity, we can ensure that our food systems and the foods we consume are diverse, safe, and nutritious.
Kenya serves as a prime example as uniform dietary recommendations simply won’t suffice. You simply cannot have the same dietary recommendations for the Maasai people as you would have for those people living in a city like Mombasa on the coast.
What key efforts can support the transition to nutritious and sustainable food systems?
Numerous countries, including many in Europe, already work with food-based dietary guidelines as the cornerstone for feeding initiatives in settings like hospitals, schools, kindergartens, and nurseries. There are valuable insights to take from these experiences, all while ensuring that such guidelines are culturally nuanced and remain attuned to the needs of the diversity of the population, both in terms of cultures and geographies.
Moreover, it will be crucial to support each other in developing appropriate policies for nutritious food systems. Such policies should extend beyond the production system and should be strengthened by including a focus on nutrition, system diversity and the active engagement of people, including consumers, at all stages of the food system.
People and the planet should both be central in these efforts as sustainability is equally important. My chosen tagline therefore is: “sufficient, diverse, nutritious, and safe foods in order to nourish all people and our planet”.
You have also been appointed as the chair of the scientific advisory committee to the follow up hub of the UN Food Systems Summit (UN FSS). What are your key objectives and aspirations in this role?
I think it is important that we - the global players and countries, for example, from Europe such as the Netherlands, work together with the country conveners to develop and implement National Pathways for progressive and targeted actions in the transformation of food systems.
At the core of such efforts towards sufficient, diverse, nutritious and safe food systems lies the imperative of diversity. Diversity of people, diversity of geographies, as well as the diversity of foods. This is a critical component of the UN FSS agenda. The path ahead is to ensure that we all collectively support countries, especially those where the needs are most pressing, to advance their transformative food systems actions.
Lastly, assisting national policies and facilitating access to crucial investments and funding are paramount. There is much work for all of us to do to ensure progress and success.
Thilsted visited the Netherlands Food Partnership (NFP), during her trip to the Netherlands for the MARE conference, to discuss opportunities for collaboration and synergy on the area of nutrition in transforming food systems with the partners supporting the NL-CGIAR strategic partnership: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, NWO-WOTRO (Science for Global Development) and NFP.