Nutrition scientist and aquatic food champion Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, the 2021 World Food Prize laureate, has worked both in Bangladesh and India. The Trinidadian with Indian roots divides her time between her birth country and Denmark. Last year, Indian American soil scientist Rattan Lal was awarded the prestigious prize. In an interaction with TOI’s Neel Kamal, Dr Thilsted says nutritional diversity is important to keep lifestyle diseases at bay. Excerpts:
What is the current food scenario across the world and how is it shaping lives?
We need to investigate how to re-transform food systems so that we do not just feed the people but nourish them, nourish nations and nourish the planet. For a long time, we discussed the quantity of food, especially the staple food. Now we do not have people dying of starvation as much as in the past or people going hungry, but we have issues of undernourishment, different forms of malnutrition. Food lacks vitamins and minerals, making children stunted or too short for their age. There is also an increasing prevalence of obesity which needs to be investigated.
Even now almost 1 in 10 people go to bed hungry as 811 million people out of 7.88 billion population are experiencing starvation.
If you are suffering from hunger, you may be getting too little staple food (ie the rice in many countries) and also might be getting too little of all other food, which means the quality of food is poor. Maybe you are just eating rice and nothing else with it. If you are going to sleep hungry, it is because you are not meeting the basic nutritional values, you are eating too little and the food you consume does not have diversity.
Does that mean there is no scarcity of food?
No, I didn’t mean it. We used to experience great famines as the one in Bengal, the kind you do not have today. If you have war or if you have disruption and conflicts, then you see that kind of stark hunger and people dying of starvation. The situation is not like that now as we have very complex problems. It will be difficult to cope with levels of obesity globally as it gives rise to multiple non-communicable diseases.
A higher level of hunger is not only prevalent in Asia but also in Africa and even in the West. This is not because of a scarcity of food grains, but irregular food habits and lower nutrition are to blame. Take the example of Denmark, which is considered a very healthy nation yet 1 in 5 people are facing obesity. In India, diabetes is a big problem.
How can nutritional richness be increased in food?
There are different ways to look at this. If we look at production, for many years we have focussed on producing more and more staple food at the expense of diversity. If you look at plates in India and Bangladesh to see what the people are eating, you will see the amount of dal and vegetables have reduced. There is a need for greater diversity in food with a focus on seasonal production foods as they are rich in nutrition.
If we go by the global scenario, almost one-third or one-fourth of food produced is lost or wasted, and the percentage of perishable food that is high in nutrients in this wastage is high. Look at consumer behaviour, marketing, and advertisements, to see the kind of food that is advertised even for young children. When I was working in India, I noticed that children buy small packets of biscuits or noodles at every small shop in little villages instead of eating a banana or a mango. There are many ways to ensure that our diet is more nutritious.
Has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the food system? Are women the worst affected by this?
The ramification of the Covid-19 pandemic has been very wide and has affected men and women differently. Covid-19 has affected mainly the women in terms of availability of food, food prices, access to food, and dwindling incomes that have impacted livelihoods. If we go by records, women suffered more than men as men returned to work faster than the women and the women were relegated to other tasks.
Small farmers are seeking employment outside the agriculture sector as even in the United States subsidies are dwindling and are mostly cornered by big farmers.
Much of the food produced in the world is by small farmers and small landholders and this is more pronounced in Asia. The governments need to ensure that the smallholders have good facilities to keep producing food. You need to have instruments like insurance schemes or low production costs. The government and other partners need to ensure food production is profitable for small farmers because no one will produce food if it is not profitable.
You have worked in Bangladesh. Do you see any collaboration among regional players to boost food systems?
There are instruments for this, you have a coalition of Saarc countries, but nobody is making use of that. I don’t see countries working on regional collaboration, I don’t see the exchange of students. A lot can be done if we work in collaboration. While working on aquatic food systems in Odisha and Assam, I used my experience of working in Bangladesh and replicated it. I did that in India, Cambodia, Myanmar, Nepal, and many countries in Africa. I think this needs to be done at higher levels through regional cooperation.
Soil scientist Dr Rattan Lal was honoured with WFP in 2020 and you in 2021. How can your combined expertise benefit the food sector?
We have met and will meet again at the World Food Prize investiture ceremony in October. Dr Lal is working as a soil scientist, and I am an aquatic food scientist. Both soil and water are interlinked as what happens to soil affects water and what happens to water also affects the soil. This is a very good combination and the two of us can work together to ensure a healthy planet that can produce food and healthy people. There has to be a paradigm shift and the focus must be on nourishing people with high-energy food like aquatic food and not just increasing the quantity of staple food. My work has been focused on using aquatic food to nourish women and young children. Aquatic food has high nutritional value with the presence of minerals and vitamins, and these are much better than land foods.
Small farmers in India are struggling against corporatisation, saying it is pushing them out of food production.
A very large part of the population in India and many other countries depends on agriculture undertaken by small farmers, or food growers, and if you think they must stay in agriculture — it is important that they stay in agriculture — they need to be provided a decent living out of agriculture and the governments need to assist them in finding ways to earn a decent living. There are very small tracts of land that are not sustainable, but the governments need to make them sustainable, and the farmers need to adopt traditional methods in combination with new technology and to ensure young people are interested in agriculture.