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Tuesday 23 October 2018

Irish student who made Time magazine's Most Influential Teens list on her pioneering work

Cork student Sophie Healy-Thow is doing pioneering work on rural development and food security

Sophie Healy-Thow is part of a team that won won a €10,000 prize at the European Youth Ag Summit. Photo: Clare Keogh
Sophie Healy-Thow is part of a team that won won a €10,000 prize at the European Youth Ag Summit. Photo: Clare Keogh
Claire Fox

Claire Fox

Although Kinsale native Sophie Healy-Thow doesn't come from a farming background, she is fast becoming one of the leading new voices on agricultural issues such as food security and world hunger at the tender age of 20.

Sophie told the Farming Independent that she first became interested in issues around food and farming when she was studying for her Junior Certificate.In 2013, her team was crowned the overall winners at the BT Young Scientist Exhibition for its project which examined how natural bacteria could be used to increase crop output.

The project later went on to win the top prize at the Google Science Fair in San Francisco the following year and saw the three young women make Time magazine's Most Influential Teens list.

Prior to this stream of success Sophie recalls getting in touch with a leading scientist who told her that the project "obviously wouldn't work" and remembers being disheartened at the time but was determined to continue with the project.

"It was very disheartening and I nearly wanted to give up on the whole idea but then I realised that just because the idea hadn't been done before didn't mean it wouldn't work. I thought to myself, well if there's no proof to say it does or doesn't work, then I'll make the proof," she says.

Fast-forward four years later and the Cork woman is a First Year scholarship student at University College Cork where she studies International Development and Food Policy and has also spoken at prestigious TED talks and at UN conferences about the danger of food insecurity.

 'Agriculture isn't just about wearing welly boots and standing in a field doing manual labour'

Most recently, Sophie was chosen as the only Irish representative to attend the European Youth Ag Summit in Brussels. Sophie said it proved to her the wide scope of the farming sector and agri-business.

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"It really showed me that agriculture isn't just about wearing welly boots and standing in a field doing manual labour. It's so much more than that," she says.

"Agriculture is one of the fastest growing industries. It is big business and the technology being developed in agriculture is hugely innovative and exciting. Seeing the commitment of young people at the summit made me believe that the future of agriculture is in good hands."

Sophie was part of a winning team at the Ag Summit which won €10,000 to develop their idea, Agrikua which is an online social enterprise aimed at helping women in agriculture in developing countries.

"It will empower young women in Kenya and other developing countries to get involved in agriculture and teach them about agricultural business techniques, business opportunities, agricultural grants and scholarships, and put them in touch with organisations who can help them get started, develop and thrive in the sector," she explains.

"Women in rural areas make up the highest percentage of farmers in developing countries so we also have designed a section on the platform which will help connect and bridge the gap between educational facilities and the older agriculture women leaders in the rural villages. It's about women helping women within agriculture."

Sophie and her team from other European countries recently spoke at Westminster to inform politicians of their experience at the Ag Summit. She thinks it's important that those with positions in power listen to young people rather than "pat them on the head".

"I really believe that a lot of older people can dismiss young voices very easily. I've been to events where it feels like I've been patted on the head, given a well done and ignored. I don't think people mean to do this, it's just a way of thinking people are used to," she says.

"I think expertise comes in all shapes and sizes, young people have an incredible way of thinking outside the box. Even if it can't be done or it seems it can't, we will try anyway."

Power

"We ask questions people are sometimes afraid to ask. Imagine a world in which people in positions of so-called power really work alongside young people, imagine how many of the world's problems and inequalities would be lessened? Policy makers and people in positions of power must listen to young people."

Although Sophie still has more than three years left to study in UCC, she says that after university that she'd like to work for a charitable organisation that helps women as she is already heavily involved in ActionAid UK which helps some of the world's poorest women and girls in poverty stricken regions.

"Through my role as a board trustee of ActionAid UK I can see first hand how food insecurity has a major impact on gender inequality as women and children are most often the first to be affected by food scarcity," she says.

"I'd like to work in policy making and international development or maybe in a charity organisation which works with women farmers. I've still three more years, so who knows?"

Ireland should look to its  history and take a lead role on food security issues

Ireland needs to look back to its own Great Famine and take the lead to help countries suffering from dangerous levels of food insecurity, says Sophie Healy-Thow.

She says that while the Irish government is a big donor as a whole to charitable organisations, it should be doing more to help regions that are food insecure.

"The Irish Government doesn't do enough to help countries. It rarely makes big statements on any issue and I think it's time it should," she says.

"We should take the lead on food security. If we look back on our own history, the Great Famine was a time of immense food insecurity for Irish people. We as a nation have experienced a food crisis and therefore we have a moral obligation to help people who are now suffering just like we did."

Sophie explains that by 2050 there will statistically not be enough food to feed the world's population and that it is everyone's business to step up to this challenge.

"Food insecurity is a huge challenge which many people and organisations are trying to tackle. Small scale businesses and projects are popping up with the aim of reducing food insecurity, helping in the distribution of crops to the market, equal pay for farmers for their crops, education about crop rotation and the importance of agriculture, eating smaller portion sizes and being consumer aware when purchasing food," she says.

"These will all help in becoming food secure, but only if people are willing to understand that they have a part to play, however big or small in the area of food security and agriculture.

"If we want to secure the future we need to be food secure. It's a simple message but it can change the world.

She adds that we also need to stop viewing food security as a 'Third World' issue as it impacts all the food chain.

"Everyone has a role to play to create a food secure world. Many people don't understand what it means or think it's just a Third World issue when it's something that affects us all. It impacts on climate change. We all need to be aware of its impact and I want to get the message out."


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