Ending food insecurity through small fisheries

Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted smiling and holding up skewer of fish in market (Courtesy of World Food Prize)
Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted holding prepared fish in a Cambodian market (Courtesy of World Food Prize)

Millions of people around the world face hunger each day, leaving them susceptible to vitamin deficiencies and chronic health problems.

Fewer people will live with food insecurity thanks to Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, this year’s 2021 World Food Prize laureate, whose research focuses on sustainably farming small fish species packed with vitamins and minerals.

“Dr. Thilsted figured out how those nutrient-rich small fish can be raised locally and inexpensively,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said May 11 at the virtual award ceremony. “Innovations like these transform people’s lives.”

Born in Trinidad to parents of Southeast Asian descent, Thilsted understood the importance of the ocean as a source for food — and a solution for food insecurity.

Headshot of Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted (Courtesy of World Food Prize)
Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted (Courtesy of World Food Prize)

Thilsted began researching pond polyculture in Bangladesh, referring to the practice of raising more than one species of aquatic organism in the same pond. There, she developed a process for farming small fish in ponds that respected local cultural practices, and she taught the community.

She is the seventh woman and the first woman of Asian heritage to be awarded the World Food Prize.

Thilsted’s method for farming small fish is among the most cost-effective and nutritious ways to feed hungry communities. It even outperforms vegetable gardening.

Her research has helped Bangladesh become the world’s fifth-largest aquaculture producer. Since 2000, her methods have supported over 18 million Bengalis and increased their nation’s agricultural output threefold. And international partners have implemented the same approach in countries across Asia and Africa.

Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted observing men grabbing at tiny fish in shallow metal basin (Courtesy of World Food Prize)
Thilsted on a field visit with the International Fund for Agricultural Development in Rangpur, Bangladesh (Courtesy of World Food Prize)

“I feel this award is an important recognition of the essential but often overlooked role of fish and aquatic food systems in agricultural research for development,” Thilsted said about her research. “Fish and aquatic foods offer life-changing opportunities for millions of vulnerable women, children, and men to be healthy and well-nourished.”

Since 2010, Thilsted has served as the global lead for nutrition and public health at WorldFish — a Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) research center headquartered in Malaysia.

The United States remains “committed to promoting science-based policies to address climate change, sustainable food systems, and global food security and nutrition,” said Blinken at the award ceremony. “And that includes supporting the work of scientists like Dr. Thilsted, whose brilliance has saved many lives.”