Although Dr Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted received the highest possible prize for her revolutionary work in the fields of food and agriculture when she won the 2021 World Food Prize, she insists that, over the decades, she has gotten more than she has given.
According to the World Food Prize Foundation, the Trinidadian scientist received the prize for her “ground-breaking research, critical insights and landmark innovations in developing holistic, nutrition-sensitive approaches to aquaculture and food systems.”
In her evaluation of the nutritional composition of small native fish species in Southeast Asia, she initiated, guided, and pushed for changes in aquatic food systems to deliver improved nutrition, sustainable ecosystems and to secure livelihoods for vulnerable people around the world.
“Thilsted set out to increase consumption of small fish, especially for women and their children in the first 1,000 days of life, the most critical period for nutrition in a child’s development. To this end, Thilsted pioneered more productive, environmentally responsible fish farming methods; developed culturally appropriate fish-based foods; and promoted nutrition-sensitive practices and policies with communities, researchers, development agencies and government institutions.”
In Bangladesh, she created new, ready-to-use, fish-based foods, developed original whole dried fish food products, such as fish chutney and fish powder, and improved processing practices that reduced fish waste and loss and increased incomes for entrepreneurs.
Thilsted told Sunday Newsday, “I’ve won many lotteries in my life. I would have liked to give even more because I feel that my life has been well spent. I’ve been able to do something good with my life.”
She said she has been fortunate to work with scientists, universities and students all over the world. She has travelled extensively, has two adult children who are physically and mentally strong, has a tremendous support in her Danish husband, Finn Thilsted, and his career as a diplomat opened many doors for them.
She said when she was an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen, she was allowed to take leave without pay and return to her job to be with her spouse in different countries. Also, when she started the university’s first course in food and nutrition security in low and middle income countries, she was able to run an intensive three-week course in Bangladesh which fulfilled almost all of her teaching quota.
“You can have and use your ideas but if you can’t pass it on then it will die. Can you imagine being able to pass on your ideas to people and they can take it to greater heights that you can imagine?”
While she was nominated for her work in aquatic systems, Thilsted has been working in agriculture – specifically aquatic food, varieties of rice, and vegetables – for most of her career. When she started doing research on aquatic food she did not expect to be internationally recognised but she was honoured and humbled to receive the prize.
“You don’t do your work thinking, ‘This is what I’m working for,’ because there are so many people working in agriculture and science. It’s a nice recognition but it’s nothing I thought that I wanted to go after.”
Eating right foods can extend your life
Born in Reform Village, Gasparillo, in October 1949, Thilsted attended Naparima Girls’ High School where she became interested in science as she enjoyed seeing things grow, and learning about metabolism, and physiology.
“In Trinidad, in my day if you were a young woman going to school, doing well in science, and you were pretty bright, the only ‘normal’ field you could study was medicine. I got admitted to UWI in Jamaica but I didn’t go. I had a scholarship so I didn’t tell anybody and registered to do agriculture instead.”
After completing her degree in Tropical Agriculture in 1971, she worked at the Ministry of Agriculture in Tobago where she met her husband. She recalled being the first woman in the Caribbean to receive a Commonwealth scholarship but she did not take it. Instead, she got married and went to live in Finn’s home country of Denmark.
There she did her masters and got a scholarship to do her PhD in Physiology of Nutrition from the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University.
In the 1980s, she took leave from her job at the University of Copenhagen and went with her husband to his diplomatic post in Bangladesh where she stayed for five years.
There she started working with malnourished children at a nutrition rehabilitation centre at a hospital. She got space on the hospital grounds, hired a gardener to plant a kitchen garden, and established a kitchen so mothers could cook for themselves and their children using the food from the garden.
She had read a study about communal meals cutting the recovery rate of paediatric cancer patients by half so she implemented a system where they ate together and, as a result, ate more.
When the children and mothers were dismissed, she had health workers visit their homes and conduct education classes on how to properly care for their children. Her efforts resulted in a two thirds decrease in illnesses.
On her return to the University of Copenhagen she started its first course in food and nutrition security in low and middle income countries. She used Bangladesh as the field base for her research and there conducted summer courses for her Danish and Bangladeshi students.
She also discovered that small fish, where people ate everything and not just the flesh, had many more micro-nutrients than other foods.
“But if you want to work with nutrition, and you want to work with foods that nourish people, you have to look at the plate of food they eat, not just one food group here and one food there but how they combine the components.”
She lamented that in TT and many countries across the world, people are combining foods that are high in carbohydrates and oil with few fruits and vegetables as well as reduced physical activity.
Many people are eating more than is required, especially in terms of starches and energy. In addition, the food is usually cooked in a lot of oil, which is high in energy, so many people are overweight.
“If you look back at the way my grandmother cooked and compare the way people cook now, maybe they used ten times as much oil, everything was swimming in oil, it was really very bad. And maybe long ago people ate as much rice or even more but then they expended more energy than we do today.”
She said the food system – from production to consumption, from the inputs like fertilisers and pesticides to the waste on plates – is broken and needs to be fixed.
“I didn’t think I was fixing it but I guess the way I was working is a way that could fix it. To want to fix something is not an interesting way to work. A better way to work is never allow things to get bad in the first place.
“If you look at the way we are and the things people eat, the foods that are in the shops, now we have to fix the system. We put ourselves in a very stupid situation.”
She said one of the problems is that people want convenient food and do not want to spend the time to prepare a meal, sit and eat, and then clean up. And even when people eat fruits and vegetables they eat those that are sweet or have a lot of water rather than nutrient rich and fibrous items such as ochro, bhagi, spinach, caraili, and melongene.
“Even within the food groups we have changed the kinds of foods we eat to those that are less nutritious. So, it’s not just the food but how foods fit within the lifestyle. But fish, especially small fish, are very rich in micro-nutrients and essential fats which are extremely important in development and cognition in children.
“A well-nourished child gets less sick, does better in school, and when the child becomes an adult they work better. So, you can have a lot of contribution to inter-generational national development.”
In addition to Denmark and Bangladesh, Thilsted has worked in many of the countries to which Finn was posted including Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Malawi, Egypt, Cambodia, Nepal, and Solomon Islands.
She now serves as the global lead for Nutrition and Public Health at WorldFish, which is under the CGIAR (formerly the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research) research centre in Malaysia.
“Ten years ago when I was at the university they came to me and asked if I would work with them and make sure that the work they were doing was nutrition sensitive because at that time their focus was on production.
“I took two years leave in 2011 and 2012 and thought I would go back to the university but because it’s an international organisation I felt this gave me the space to work globally so I stayed on.”
She hopes the World Food Prize will give her the opportunity to get more grants as she wants her next project to be seaweed. She said seaweed is supposed to be nutritious and harvesting is a low cost to the environment so she would like to do a nutritional breakdown of the various types of seaweed, as well as make tasty and nutritious products for all to enjoy.