Australian Baha'i Sites

‘All must be producers’: Agriculture and building communities

In this interview with Australian Baha’i Horizons, Professor Richard Bell speaks about the fundamental importance of agriculture in building vibrant, self-sustaining communities around the world.

Professor Richard Bell developed an interest in agricultural development research while studying at university. He wasn’t a Baha’i yet, but his yearning to contribute towards betterment coursed through his veins.
 
Soon after becoming a Baha’i in 1975, he and his wife, Georgie Sounness, pioneered to Fiji where he found work in agricultural teaching. “My teaching work was about trying to awaken another generation to the science of agriculture and how to apply it to improve food security and well-being,” Prof Bell says. “But that time in Fiji followed me through and gave me an abiding interest in tropical agriculture and smallholder agriculture.” 
 
For more than 40 years, Prof Bell has strived to maintain a sense of coherence between his Faith and work, using the framework of the Plan to inspire his career in research and sustainable land management. “Most of us spend a large part of our lives at work, and if you can serve through your work and blend your Baha’i values with the work that you do then you’re using all your waking hours productively,” he says. 

Prof Bell was one of the keynote speakers at the recent Albany Baha’i Summer Camp held in Western Australia. The camp focused on the theme Service and Social Action, with presenters covering topics including water saving solutions, the protection of national parks, and Indigenous culture. 

Prof Bell shared insights into his agricultural development research, which has seen him travel around the world to countries including Bangladesh, Cambodia, China and Thailand. Among the most recent innovations of his team of research collaborators is the invention of small-scale machinery which has allowed for a new system of sustainable cropping in smallholder farms in Bangladesh. 

Prof Bell and his team worked alongside farmers during their time with smallholder farms in Bangladesh

He says such developments can only come about after long-term engagement with those on the ground, drawing parallels from what the Universal House of Justice says about social action and development at the grassroots: 

“Thus, while social action may involve the provision of goods and services in some form, its primary concern must be to build capacity within a given population to participate in creating a better world. Social change is not a project that one group of people carries out for the benefit of another. The scope and complexity of social action must be commensurate with the human resources available in a village or neighbourhood to carry it forward. Efforts best begin, then, on a modest scale and grow organically as capacity within the population develops. Capacity rises to new levels, of course, as the protagonists of social change learn to apply with increasing effectiveness elements of Baha’u’llah’s Revelation, together with the contents and methods of science, to their social reality.” 

The Universal House of Justice 1

“Social action is about preparation, training and developing skills through the institute and applying that learning and skills in a more systematic way,” Prof Bell says.  

“You have to read the reality, spend time with whichever community you’re working with, and listen and try to understand their reality and restraints, not come in with preconceived ideas and solutions. 

“How do you make effective change? You have to think about what the legacy will be and usually, that’s around the people. How can your participation and partnership help the local people become capable of reading their reality and building capacity? 

“Most significant social change doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a progressive development that can take decades.” 

“You have to read the reality, spend time with whichever community you’re working with, and listen and try to understand their reality and restraints, not come in with preconceived ideas and solutions.”

Professor Richard Bell

According to the Census of Population and Housing, farmers represent 2% of all employed people in Australia. With much of the population living in the major cities, Prof Bell says fewer people have a connection with agricultural practices and how farms operate, despite ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s words speaking on the importance of farming: 

“The fundamental basis of the community is agriculture, tillage of the soil. All must be producers.”

Abdu’l-Baha 2

Noting the world’s growing population and climate change as a central concern, Prof Bell said it was important that more Baha’is entered the agricultural industry.  

“Worldwide, in 2009, it was the first time in history that there were more people in towns and cities than in rural areas,” he says. “In terms of what actually happens in farms and the awareness of challenges and practices, we’re getting more and more distanced.” 

“We are going forward into a world where that connection with the farmer becomes weaker and weaker, yet the reliance of people on food producers, that is the farmers, becomes greater. Fewer and fewer people are producing food for more and more people, and we shouldn’t be too flippant about how easy that is. 
 
“We have science as an important tool to apply to food production and food security as well as our spiritual values to progress, sustain and maintain the world at the same time. 

“We need more Baha’is in agriculture.” 

Footnotes

  1. The Universal House of Justice, Ridván Message, 2010[]
  2. ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity[]

Thanks for reading.

Subscribe

Professor Richard Bell

Richard is a Professor at the Centre for Sustainable Farming Systems, Food Futures Institute at Murdoch University. He specialises in Crop nutrition, soil management, and conservation agriculture. His work was recently awarded the JA Prescott Medal by Soil Science Australia.

Published in February, 2024, in Individual Initiatives > Interviews

Available online at: horizons.bahai.org.au/individual-initiatives/building-capacity-at-grassroots-vital-to-agricultural-development/

Related Stories

Renee Campbell

‘Bounties far outweigh the difficulties’: From Perthie to pioneer 

In this interview with Australian Baha’i Horizons, Renee Campbell speaks about her decision to pioneer abroad, and the community-building work currently underway in her newfound neighbourhood in ...

Sana Vasli

Stories of The Master: New podcast connects hearts to ‘Abdu’l-Baha 

In this interview with Australian Baha’i Horizons, Sana Vasli speaks about the inspiration behind his individual initiative Stories of The Master – a podcast series that shares inspiring and ...

Ryan Zare

Raising capacity in the regions: The reflections of a youth pioneer

In this interview with Australian Baha’i Horizons, Ryan Zare speaks about his pioneering journey and the community-building process underway in his new hometown of Carnarvon, Western Australia. ...

Dallas Campbell

The Baha’i House of Worship – a refuge for humanity and the natural world 

In this interview with Australian Baha’i Horizons, Dallas Campbell speaks about the interplay between the Baha’i House of Worship and its surrounds, and how we each have a role to play in ...

Dellaram Vreeland

Shining the beacon of hope – Reflections on our role in the current Plan 

In 1953, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, Shoghi Effendi, facilitated a global Plan called the Ten Year Crusade, calling on the friends to share the unifying message of Baha’u’llah across the ...

Bahareh Khademi

Open Mic Night celebrates impact of the arts

A new initiative in the Gold Coast is celebrating the creative talents of people of all ages, encouraging friends to move outside their comfort zone and celebrating the impact of the arts. The ...

Video
  • Featured in
    Find more stories about

    Work and Service