Liesbet Vermeire, Syngenta, Ghent (Belgium)
They don’t spend every day with their hands in the ground, on the tractor or among the animals, yet their work is connected to our sector. Photographers, specialist journalists, marketers, researchers… these are the less visible professions, but no less important. In this section, Women in Ag looks for the women who work indirectly in agriculture.
Our outsider of this edition is Liesbet Vermeire (28). As a born and bred city person, you would think she would have nothing at all to do with the agricultural sector. The connection came about by chance when Liesbet, having just obtained her bachelor’s degree in chemistry, fell upon a vacancy at seed and crop protection specialist Syngenta.
“I grew up with a heart for nature, but I happened to get into the industry when I stumbled across this job opening. Research has always appealed to me, and this in combination with biology seemed to be a match made in heaven”, she says.
Syngenta and bio-pesticides research
Liesbet and her colleagues’ work is very important in developing crop protection that is not harmful to the environment. “We do research on bio-pesticides, more specifically we develop products that use double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) very precisely to control pest insects and protect crops without impacting people and the environment.”
The product is designed not to harm beneficials such as bees and other pollinators. “It is also easily degradable and leaves no residues”, Liesbet continues “and it is absolutely not harmful for humans either: the body naturally breaks down these molecules. Another advantage is that our products, like many already existing pesticides, can spray fields.”
Liesbet’s department carries out research into the molecular side of things, in particular the development and optimisation of the product, and tests the dsRNA on the insects and plants that the company wants to protect. This testing is her specialty: “I co-maintain the insects and conduct experiments with our dsRNA. Personally, I think mine is the most fun jon in our lab.”
She may not come from the sector, but through her work Liesbet has already learned a lot about agriculture: “One of the things I’ve learned is the immense impact we have as a company and how biological agriculture is becoming more and more important for farmer, people and industry. Everyone needs food and we all want it to be as sustainable as possible for people and the environment. The industry is working really hard to meet these growing and high expectations of sustainable and safe food. I’ve also seen for myself just how much research is done to develop a product!”
“The idea that, for some people, women can’t work in agriculture, is unacceptable to me.
Women in science
In Liesbet’s lab, it’s about abilities, not gender. She herself experiences no difference (in perception) between men and women in her job. Still, she says, there is work to be done on the perception of women in general and women in agriculture or science.
“The idea that, for some people, women can’t work in agriculture, is unacceptable to me. In the same way, the misconception that scientists are predominantly male, or that women scientists are ‘manly women’ also bothers me.”
Another general idea that Liesbet wants to get out of the way is that women don’t want to do dirty jobs: “Everyone (male and female) who starts here in our lab is a bit insecure about insects at first, but we all get over that quickly. The one thing I notice in our department is that women still have a really hard time with spiders!”
In Liesbet’s lab, there are more women than men. A trend she also notices higher up. “Our head of service is also a woman and I see that there are quite a few women in high positions here. To me, we are doing very well on that front.”
When we ask Liesbet her opinion about the work still to do as far as women in the workplace are concerned, she immediately points out that women in every sector should be equal at the highest level. “Syngenta is doing its best to give opportunities to women at every level and to use their talents and it really shows.”
This article was published in Women in Ag Mag 2021-1. Click here to read the full article.
Text: Kim Schoukens
Pictures: Yann Naudet