Female #FoodHeroes

Helen Thompson

Helen is a Syngenta Fellow and Group Lead for Eco-Science at Syngenta in the UK. 

What do you do?

My group is responsible for the generation of many of the environmental effects data we use to support regulatory submissions globally, and for delivering the ecological risk assessments for the EU. We also work closely with other regions. I have a particular interest in terrestrial ecotoxicology – the study of how environmental pollutants affect land-dependent organisms and their environment – and an expertise in bees, which have had a consistently high profile with scientists and the media alike over the last 10 years.

Why do you love your job?

I love the variety of work that I am involved in, together with the wide range of views and cultures. This includes working with Syngenta and other industry colleagues across all regions, but also in the wider scientific community, such as talking to regulators in Brazil, and with academics on field trial design conducted in India.

How did you get here?

My background is as a biochemist, I completed my PhD on monitoring the exposure of birds to pesticides, which was a great introduction to both laboratory and field work. I then worked for the UK Government at the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) and its legacy organizations for 25 years. While here I led research programs on the exposure and effects of pesticides on terrestrial wildlife in the agricultural landscape. I also participated in the development of terrestrial ecotoxicology guidance and risk assessment in Europe.

I joined Syngenta in 2013 and this has given me the opportunity to use my experience on a global scale, including with CropLife International, particularly with regulators in Latin America and Asia as they begin to formulate their environmental risk assessment regulatory frameworks.

What is your advice for young women wanting to contribute to sustainable food and farming?

One of the key challenges is in ensuring society understands where its food comes from, and the challenges farmers face. Don’t be afraid to make your voice heard, there may be many who disagree but if you really believe in what you are saying then those who are prepared to listen will.

My experience relates to the neonicotinoids and pollinators arena where, even for years before I joined Syngenta, I received personal attacks online and in conferences from NGOs and activists for my views. However, at the same time, although less vocal, many scientists, farmers and beekeepers agreed that the issue is multifactorial and Varroa, viruses and habitat are major contributors to bee decline. This gave me the confidence to maintain and continue to advocate my position.

How does agriculture need to change to be fit for the future?

It is clear that pressure in some regions is increasing on what society expects from agriculture but there is huge diversity in farming practices within regions and globally. This means there is no single answer. For example, we need to develop new approaches, such as precision application, which offer real potential in some regions like the EU, where there is pressure on farmers to produce safe, affordable food and reduce inputs. However, in other less developed regions, such technology may not be available or relevant to farmers. So, we need to listen to local needs and attract diverse talent who understand local environments and cultures to ensure a sustainable and successful future for food, farmers and farming.

What’s one challenge you face as a woman in agriculture and what do you think needs to be done to overcome this?

Some areas of agriculture are clearly male dominated, but this isn’t consistent across the industry and I haven’t personally faced significant challenges. However, to face the future challenges, the industry as a whole needs to encourage more women to join by valuing them for their skills and the different experiences and perspectives they bring.

 

Helen is just one of many inspirational women working in agriculture. Visit our Female #FoodHeroes page to hear from other women working to improve plant science and nutrition.