ANOTHER prestigious accolade has been awarded to Kinsale native Sophie Healy Thow, who first came to the attention of the public thanks to her work with the BT Young Scientist Exhibition at the age of 15.
Now, at 22, Sophie is going into her fourth year of a full scholarship programme at University College Cork studying International Development and Food Policy.
Currently in the middle of an internship with Concern Worldwide, Sophie has now been listed by Foodtank as the fifth most inspiring young person affecting change in the international food system.
“I was really surprised when I found out, I didn’t know I was going to be listed.
“I’ve always looked up to Foodtank, sometimes I can feel a little alone in what I do, because it is not exactly a sexy area to work in, food systems, nutrition, agriculture, it’s not considered cool, there is not the same punch to it as climate change.
“But to see my name up there made me feel very supported and that what I have done over the past eight years means something and is making a difference however small.”
Sophie was just 15 when her team won the 2014 Google Science Prize for their project on how to make faster-growing crops and today, Ms Healy-Thow is a member of the Scaling Up Nutrition Lead Group.
“It’s a global movement that works mainly in the Global south in developing countries to make nutrition part of their governmental national action plan, specifically working on malnutrition in all its forms.”
Sophie is the only young person on the panel.
“I’m the only young person on the lead group, so I am holding kind of a youth position there, at the highest level. I have been representing young people in that position, trying to get more young people involved and more young people involved in decision making.
“So having that voice there that nutrition is an issue for young people but it is also an issue for young people in developing countries.
“In developed countries obesity is on the rise, so it is something that connects us all and it has a huge impact on climate change as well so I have been working on that and trying to bridge those connections so that it is understood that nutrition is an issue for all of us and it is something we all need to work on.”
In terms of the internship with the international charity organisation Concern Worldwide, Sophie said she is currently making a podcast to educate people and raise awareness about the food system.
“I’m making a podcast with them about young people in the food system and how they aren’t as represented as they should be. On the podcast I have been interviewing policymakers and decision-makers and also interviewing activists and having informal conversations about quite big issues, so that has been a lot of fun.”
The series hasn’t launched yet, but Sophie said it will be live in the next month and she is looking forward to seeing the reaction it instigates.
“It’s a space a lot of young people are interested in, but it is really hard to get your voice out there, so it is kind of a place where young activists or young people interested in activism in food, nutrition, climate change can get in touch with policymakers and the decision-makers who are sometimes quite difficult to get in touch with.
“I’ve been quite lucky to be in the space to meet a lot of decision-makers. So I’m hoping to make the people who seem like they are making all the decisions, more accessible to young people who really should be making all the decisions.”
In terms of the Covid impact on the food chain, Sophie warned that the consequences are stark although in a very different way across developed and developing countries.
“In the global north, all developed and wealthy countries there has been a rise in obesity rates leading up to Covid, with 39% of adults obese, which is the highest number it has ever been.
“In the global south there have been bigger issues, in rural Kenya, a lot of secondary schools have meal options available for free to students. I have heard from a 19-year-old girl, in rural Kenya, that her friends have no access to food in their everyday lives because their only access to food was through school. Now they are going to the nearest fish sheds where the fishermen are and they are offering themselves up for sex in return for food.
“That is one really harrowing case that brings back how important food is and the impact it has in young women in developing countries.”
Sophie said another issue is we are seeing a rise in pregnancies across the global south.
“Especially during this time when we are seeing a lack of access to food we are going to see a lot more births. Babies, who have not had the proper nutrients or minerals to develop a fully functioning healthy brain.”
The young student said she is being told by a number of on the ground organisations that we are due to see a famine of “biblical proportions” after Covid-19 or in the next few years, because Covid-19 has had such devastating impacts on peoples’ access to safe and nutritious and affordable foods.
“It’s specifically in developing countries. Ethiopia is to witness the fifth-worst food crisis ever seen this coming year.
“300,000 people could starve to death every single day over three months if the humanitarian aid that is needed to stop the famine can’t get to them. It is quite crazy.”
Focusing her attention on Ireland, Sophie said we are far from perfect.
“Hunger is more hidden in Ireland, it definitely exists, we have the food cloud and food banks to supply people with food. I think a lot of wealthy countries like to ignore that they are not perfect.
“Ireland is one of those that there are people experiencing hunger, the cost of living in Ireland is extremely high.
“The cost of healthy nutritious food in Ireland is also extremely high, so it is a difficult topic. It needs to be spoken about a lot more, just the urgency and that conversation is not taking place to the extent that it should do.”
Looking ahead, Sophie is focused on finishing her degree and following it with a Masters, before going to live and work in a developing country.
“I’m a very lucky person, I have never experienced hunger or famine. Who am I to speak about these issues when I have never known them?”
In the future, Sophie wants to work in food policy in Ireland.
“I love Ireland, I would love to end up back here.”