Dr. Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, has received 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. By bringing together interdisciplinary and international collaborators, she drove transformations in aquatic food systems to deliver improved nutrition, resilient ecosystems and secure livelihoods for millions of vulnerable people across the globe.

Haraksingh Thilsted started her career as the first and only woman in the Ministry of Agriculture, Lands and Fisheries on the island of Tobago. She now serves as the Global Lead for Nutrition and Public Health at WorldFish, a global CGIAR research center headquartered in Malaysia.

While evaluating the nutritional composition of small native fish species in Southeast Asia, Thilsted was the first to establish that commonly consumed small fish were important sources of essential micronutrients and fatty acids. 

According to Thilsted’ “Eating more fish and other aquatic foods means a more diverse and nutritious diet. Aquatic food needs more space on people’s plates across the world.”

Thilsted pioneered programs to boost fish consumption among women and children through more productive, environmentally responsible fish farming methods, culturally appropriate fish-based foods, and nutrition-sensitive practices and policies with communities, researchers, development agencies and government institutions.

Shakuntala was born in 1949 in South Trinidad, where the main industry was sugar production. Most of the inhabitants, including Shakuntala’s family, were descendants of Indian Hindu migrants brought to Trinidad to engage in agricultural labor. Most families had access to land owned by a sugar factory, where they grew not only sugarcane but rice and other food crops for their household.

Thilsted developed her attention to detail at an early age, as she seldom made a mistake when helping to balance the ledgers in her grandfather’s shop or forgot a name when helping her mother run the postal service. Though the sweets in her grandfather’s shop were more appealing to her friends as children, Thilsted valued the smoked herring, salted cod and tinned tuna and salmon sold in the shop that were the basis of some of her favorite meals.

She recalls an occasion from her childhood that inspired her; “I remember as a child one of my uncles won a university scholarship. And my grandmother was interviewed by a national newspaper. I remembered clearly her saying that, ‘My child is intelligent because I fed him fish when he was a young child.’ And that stuck with me.” 

Thilsted completed her undergraduate education at the Trinidad campus of the University of the West Indies, where she earned a B.Sc. in Tropical Agriculture in 1971. While working as an Agricultural Officer in Tobago, she met her husband, Finn Thilsted. After marrying, they moved to Finn’s home country of Denmark where Shakuntala took up post-graduate studies under the mentorship of Dr. Poul Martin Riis. In 1980, she was awarded a Ph.D. in Physiology of Nutrition from the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University, where she went on to become an associate professor. Alternating between teaching in Denmark and working with her husband on diplomatic missions all over the developing world, Thilsted began assembling international teams to work on projects to improve nutrition for women and young children.

Via World Food Prize