Press Release: Aquatic foods make a splash at World Food Prize

9 minutes read
WorldFish scientist Shakuntala Thilsted receives award for her influential research on nutrition, fish and aquatic food systems

WorldFish scientist Shakuntala Thilsted receives award for her influential research on nutrition, fish and aquatic food systems

DES MOINES, October, 21, 2021 - Dr. Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, Global Lead for Nutrition and Public Health at WorldFish, received today the 2021 World Food Prize for her groundbreaking research, critical insights and landmark innovations in developing nutrition-sensitive approaches to aquatic food systems, including fisheries and aquaculture, and integrated food production from land and water.

Thilsted is the first woman of Asian heritage to be awarded the World Food Prize.

World Food Prize Foundation President Barbara Stinson said:

“Thilsted is the seventh woman to be awarded the World Food Prize and the first woman of Asian heritage. She is at the helm of some of our key action areas for global progress in the UN Decade of Action. She continues to stand at the forefront of innovation, pushing the boundaries of nutrition-sensitive food systems, truly changing the conversation from not just feeding our populations, to nourishing them.”

Often referred to as the ‘Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture’, the World Food Prize is the most prominent global award recognizing an individual who has enhanced human development and confronted global hunger through improving the quality, quantity and availability of food for all.

Thilsted was the first to examine the nutritional composition of small indigenous fish species commonly found and consumed in Bangladesh and Cambodia. Her research demonstrated that the high levels of multiple essential micronutrients and fatty acids in these affordable and locally available foods offered life-changing benefits for children's cognitive development in their first 1000 days of life and the nutrition and health of their mothers.

From this breakthrough, Thilsted went on to develop nutrition-sensitive approaches and innovations to food production from land and water that have improved the diets, nutrition and health of millions of vulnerable women, men and children living in low- and middle-income countries across Asia, Africa and the Pacific.

On the significance of the award, WorldFish Global Lead for Nutrition and Public Health and Vice Chair of the UN Food Systems Summit 2021 Action Track 4: Advance Equitable Livelihoods Dr. Shakuntala Thilsted said:

"As a scientist, I feel this award is an important recognition of the essential but often overlooked role of aquatic foods and aquatic food systems in agricultural research for development. This award is a major acknowledgment of the urgent need to prioritize aquatic foods in nutrition policies and program interventions at national and global levels.”

Hundreds of the world’s top agricultural leaders, professionals and experts gathered at the Iowa State Capitol to witness the 2021 World Food Prize Laureate Award Ceremony, which is part of the 2021 Norman E. Borlaug International Dialogue: Gaining Momentum – Food Systems Transformation in the Decade of Action and featured remarks from Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, World Food Prize Foundation President Barbara Stinson and Thilsted.

Distinguished guests at the ceremony were United States Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack and Mexican Secretary of Agriculture and Rural Development Víctor Manuel Villalobos Arámbula.

During her acceptance speech, Thilsted said:

“My work is just the beginning for us to understand and make full use of the potential of diverse aquatic food to transform food, land and water systems so that we can nourish all peoples and our planet. I call on young researchers and students to be inspired by my work and take it to new heights.”

A true food systems thinker, the impact of Thilsted's research crosses over different disciplines and sectors. She is credited with developing the pond polyculture system, a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable way of farming small and large fish species together in homestead ponds, water bodies and rice fields. This innovation, which helped to significantly increase the quality, diversity and quantity of available food, prompted a large-scale shift towards aquaculture production in Bangladesh. In addition, it led the Government of Bangladesh to recognize the pond polyculture system as a critical innovation for meeting national targets to beat hunger, malnutrition, gender inequality and poverty.

On Thilsted’s achievement, WorldFish Director General and CGIAR Senior Director of Aquatic Food Systems Dr. Gareth Johnstone said:

“This is a much-deserved award for a world-class food systems thinker, who challenges us to think differently and critically about the interconnected nature of different food production systems in land and water, about the nutritional value of fish and the rich diversity of aquatic foods, about the many opportunities aquatic foods represent as the new frontier for improving nutrition and public health, as well as the health and sustainability of our planet, and about why aquatic food systems have been an overlooked part of global food systems in terms of both research and investment.”

Working together with local communities and private sector actors, Thilsted guided the development of innovative, affordable and culturally acceptable fish-based products suitable for consumption by young children and lactating women. She discovered these products were nutrition powerhouses in their own right, and – when consumed with other foods – they also helped increase the absorption or bioavailability of other essential micronutrients found in vegetables and rice, such as iron and zinc.

Thilsted's influential research work on harvesting and processing in fish and aquatic food systems have enabled women in the sector to overcome gender barriers, to increase the visibility of their work in and contributions to the aquatic foods sector, to improve their access to affordable, nutritious fish and other foods, to increase incomes, and to create new business and economic opportunities. In addition, her work has guided the development of national campaigns and community programs to raise awareness and improve knowledge about nutrition and the critical inclusion of fish and aquatic foods in healthy and balanced diets for malnourished women and children.

CGIAR Systems Board Chair Dr. Marco Ferroni said:

“Congratulations to Shakuntala Thilsted, 2021 World Food Prize Laureate, along with deeply felt thanks, respect and appreciation for your life-long commitment to improved nutrition and human development outcomes through aquaculture and the demonstration of the potential of aquatic foods for improved diets, nourishment, livelihoods, equity and empowerment alike. You are a pioneer in food and nutrition systems transformation, an inspiration to us all at CGIAR.” 

From the research field to the highest level of policy, Thilsted's scientific work and innovations is helping to shift global narratives of food production to higher food systems thinking, from the discourse on 'feeding' a growing global population to 'nourishing' billions of people, nations and the planet. Her nutrition-sensitive approaches to food production from land and water have put nutrition and public health outcomes at the forefront, with due consideration for equal access to and affordability of diverse nutritious foods for all, and environmental health and sustainability.

Since 2010, Thilsted has worked at WorldFish, an entity of CGIAR, the world's largest research and innovation network. As the Global Lead for Nutrition and Public Health, she shaped the formulation of the new disruptive 2030 WorldFish Research and Innovation Strategy: Aquatic Foods for Healthy People and Planet, which was launched at the end of 2020.

This year, Thilsted was also awarded the 2021 Arrell Global Food Innovation Award. She is a member of the Steering Committee of the High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) on Food Security and Nutrition, Vice Chair for Action Track 4: Advance Equitable Livelihoods of the UN Food Systems Summit 2021 and a U.N. Food Systems Champion.

For more information on her work, biography, scientific publications, please visit the link here.




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Tana Lala-Pritchard

WorldFish Executive Director of Strategy, Innovation and Communications



Sean Lee Kuan Shern

WorldFish Science Communications Specialist



About WorldFish

WorldFish is an international, nonprofit research and innovation institution that creates, advances, and translates aquatic food systems science into scalable solutions. We vision an inclusive world of healthy, well-nourished people and a sustainable blue planet, now and in the future. Our mission is to end hunger and advance progress on the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals through science and innovation to transform food, land, and water systems with aquatic foods for healthier people and the planet.

For over 45 years, WorldFish's data, evidence, and insights have shaped practices, policies, and investments to end hunger and advance sustainable development in low- and middle-income countries.  We have a global presence across 20 countries in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, with 460 staff of 30 nationalities deployed where the most significant sustainable development challenges can be addressed through holistic aquatic food systems solutions. Embedded in local, national, and international partnerships, our work sets agendas, builds capacities, and supports decision-making for climate action, food and nutrition security, sustainable fisheries and aquaculture, blue economy, One Health, and AgriTech, integrating gender, youth, and social inclusion.

A core element of the 2030 WorldFish Research and Innovation Strategy: Aquatic Foods for Healthy People and Planet is focused on building the resilience of aquatic food systems to shocks, which is critical to COVID-19 response and recovery.

WorldFish is part of CGIAR, the world's largest agricultural research and innovation network.

For more information, please visit

About the World Food Prize

The World Food Prize Foundation elevates innovations and inspires action to sustainably increase the quality, quantity and availability of food for all. The Foundation supports this through a variety of innovative programs year-round including by: recognizing and rewarding individuals making exceptional achievements in addressing food security; convening global leaders in Des Moines each year to address the latest issues and innovations in food and agriculture; inspiring, recognizing and empowering students around the world by providing educational and professional experiences on pressing food security and agriculture issues; and addressing Iowa's challenges and successes in fighting hunger and poverty.

A Selection Committee of experts from around the world oversees the nomination and selection process and is chaired by Dr. Gebisa Ejeta. Other past Prize Laureates include former President of Ghana John Kufour; U.S. Senators Bob Dole and George McGovern; Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Muhammad Yunus; Professor Yuan Longping and former Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme Catherine Bertini.

For more information, please visit


CGIAR is the world’s largest global agricultural innovation network. We provide evidence to policymakers, innovation to partners, and new tools to harness the economic, environmental and nutritional power of agriculture.

CGIAR has a wealth of experience and knowledge spanning 50 years that builds on a track-record of innovation and world-class research. Thanks to our funders, CGIAR research has transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people through tangible research outcomes.

The 15 CGIAR Research Centers are independent, non-profit research organizations, conducting innovative research. Home to more than 8,000 scientists, researchers, technicians, and staff, CGIAR research works to create a better future for the world’s poor. Each Center has its own charter, board of trustees, director general, and staff. CGIAR Research Centers are responsible for hands-on research programs and operations guided by policies and research directions set by the System Management Board.

For more information, please visit