Dr. Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted

Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted (born 1949) is a specialist in nutrition-sensitive approaches to aquatic food systems. She is a dual national of Trinidad and Tobago and Denmark. It was announced on 11 May 2021 that she was the winner of the 2021 World Food Prize, the first woman of Asian ancestry to be awarded the prize.

Thilsted worked in Bangladesh and Cambodia where she examined the nutritional composition of small native fish species found and consumed in those countries. In Bangladesh she initiated a partnership between the Bangladesh Agricultural University and her university in Denmark. She demonstrated that there were high levels of numerous essential micronutrients and fatty acids in these fish, which could provide significant benefits for the cognitive development of children in their first 1000 days, both through direct consumption and through their mothers’ milk, as well as benefitting the nutrition and health of their mothers. From this research, Thilsted went on to develop nutrition-sensitive approaches and innovations to food production that have improved the nutrition of millions of low-income people. In Cambodia, where most rural people depend on rice field fisheries for income and food, she helped establish rice field ponds to produce fish throughout the dry season.

Thilsted is credited with developing the pond polyculture system, which allows small and large fish species to grow together in ponds, larger areas of water, and rice fields. Contrary to popular belief, small fish did not compete with large fish for space or food. Instead, the polyculture approach increased total productivity by as much as five times This helped to increase the quality, diversity, and quantity of available food in many local communities in Bangladesh and in 2004 the Bangladesh Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock banned the cleaning of ponds and prohibited the use of pesticides to kill naturally occurring fish. Working together with local communities and the private sector Thilsted also promoted the development of affordable, and culturally acceptable, highly nutritional fish-based products, suitable for young children and lactating women. She also discovered that these products helped increase the absorption or bioavailability of other essential micronutrients found in vegetables and rice, such as iron and zinc.