Reflections on improving rural people’s nutrition: A conversation with 2021 World Food Prize winner Dr Shakuntala Thilsted

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Reflections on improving rural people’s nutrition: A conversation with 2021 World Food Prize winner Dr Shakuntala Thilsted

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Nigel Brett (N.B.) I was extremely pleased to see that my colleague and friend Dr Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted has won the 2021 World Food Prize for her “groundbreaking research, critical insights and landmark innovations in developing holistic, nutrition-sensitive approaches to aquaculture and food systems."  I still remember sharing an office with Shakuntala in IFAD headquarters almost 25 years ago, and have held her in the highest esteem ever since.

I also remember the terrific partnership that IFAD had with Shakuntala and the WorldFish team in Bangladesh. We were testing innovative fish culture technologies – in particular, the introduction of nutrient-rich indigenous small fish. This greatly benefited local residents, especially women and children.

I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this award. I was eager to reach out to Shakuntala to catch up and hear more about her achievements and where they are taking her.

Shakuntala, reflecting on your life’s work, what sticks in your mind as the highlights and key turning points?

Dr Shakuntala Thilsted (S.T.). The key turning point came back in the 1980s when I was working with the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh. I began to understand how fish could play an important role in improving people’s diets. I saw positive outcomes in the nutrition and overall health of mothers and children receiving treatment in the centre. This inspired me to investigate the nutritional value of various types of food in Bangladesh, and later in Cambodia.

My research showed that fish, especially small indigenous fish, are a rich source of micronutrients such as vitamins A, B12, zinc and iron, as well as essential fatty acids. As a consequence, I became convinced that fish had enormous potential to address malnutrition.

An important outcome of my research was the adoption of the pond polyculture production system by the Government of Bangladesh. This showed that the government recognized its potential.

Using the nutrition-sensitive approach to food systems, I was able to bring solutions to Cambodia, India, Malawi, Myanmar, Timor-Leste and Zambia, adapting the approach to the needs and conditions in each country. Realizing that the results were adaptable and scalable was another important milestone.

Shakuntala at work as a Nutrition Coordinator for Bangladesh’s International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in the late 1980s.

N.B. Looking back at the work we have done together on improving women’s and children’s nutrition in Bangladesh, what was unique about that work and how did it pave the way for future work?

S.T. IFAD played a big role in supporting my work and in my winning the 2021 World Food Prize. I started collaborating with IFAD in 2010, when we initiated the Small Fish for Nutrition project in Bangladesh. This project was unique, as not many funding agencies had the foresight to adopt a nutrition-sensitive approach in their investment models – IFAD was one of the very few.

Through IFAD’s support, I was able to bring my findings on the importance of small fish – and to transform the methodology for aquaculture production – across Bangladesh. Our project expanded pond polyculture across various production systems, including inland water bodies, wetlands and isolated ponds. I was also able to build upon that system, adding activities such as planting vegetables and installing pond dykes so that women and children could improve their diets and manage the production, harvesting and consumption of vegetables and fish within the household. Through behaviour change communication, I was also able to raise their awareness of the importance of fish in the diet, and to ensure that all household members benefited from increased fish consumption.

This success paved the way for massive transformation in Bangladesh, whereby 4 million ponds now employ nutrition-sensitive approaches to their production systems. With IFAD’s collaboration, we were able to scale up this approach and bring the pond polyculture concept to other countries in Asia and Africa.

This collaboration with IFAD continues, and we look forward to future opportunities to bring nutrition-sensitive aquatic food systems to new countries.

N.B. I see you’re one of the thought leaders for the Food Systems Summit. As Vice-Chair for Action Track 4, what do you see as the main issues, and what are the priority actions, for improving women’s and children’s nutrition in rural areas?

S.T. We understand that food systems are broken – and the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of the system – with the poor, marginalized and vulnerable suffering most in terms of their ability to sustain sufficient and healthy diets. Over 3 billion people depend on aquatic food as an important source of protein, and 800 million people depend on aquatic foods as a source of livelihood. Therefore, we cannot talk about food systems transformation without considering aquatic food systems.

Priorities include developing fish-based products that are safe, affordable and accessible, and can be used during low production periods. These approaches have significant potential to improve women’s and children’s nutritional health in rural areas.

Another priority – and I hope to collaborate with IFAD on this – is to bring the voices of rural communities, especially women farmers, to the Summit for active engagement. I wish to make these voices heard and included in the discussions as we develop solutions through the Summit. It is important that decisions and solutions are designed together with the people who need them most.

Women dry fish in Badurpur, Bangladesh. The fish will serve to improve household nutrition and will also be sold, providing a source of income.

N.B. What’s next? Where will you focus your energy and passion?

S.T. I will continue to dedicate my energy and passion to optimizing the use of aquatic foods for nourishing nations – for healthy people and a healthy planet. This will be my focus for the coming years. I will also focus on lobbying for more investments and research funding, and for developing and strengthening policy changes regarding aquatic foods. I hope to see aquatic foods having a bigger presence in conversations on food systems transformation, and I also hope to see actions being taken that will maximize their potential. Lastly, I am interested in exploring the use of novel aquatic foods, especially seaweed, as agents of change that can improve food and nutrition security for rural people, especially vulnerable groups.

N.B. Thank you, Dr Shakuntala! We’re looking forward to future collaborations for improving nutrition and expanding nutrition-sensitive agricultural practices in rural areas.

And don’t miss the chance to see more of Nigel’s and Shakuntala’s work promoting small-fish nutrition in Bangladesh: