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Agricultural pioneer recognised for outstanding contribution to soil science

Professor Richard Bell

A career spent improving the soil in which we cultivate crops has seen Professor Richard Bell awarded the JA Prescott Medal by Soil Science Australia.

Professor Bell’s research, teaching and outreach have made a significant impact on agriculture, improving the sustainability, productivity and profitability of farming in Australia and internationally.

“I enjoy in-depth research and seeing its application to farmers; I have a deep respect for farmers and their ability to produce crops. Being able to contribute to that through the study of soils keeps me engaged and motivated,” said Professor Bell.

“I believe agriculture is a very honourable profession. Wherever I am in the world, I love going onto farms, talking to farmers, seeing what they’re doing and why they do it.

“As a scientist, I like to think about what we already know that could be of benefit to farmers and what are the questions and constraints that exist on farms that science and research could help to address.”

His work in less well-developed countries has been particularly impactful, contributing to lifting communities from poverty.

In Bangladesh, Professor Bell has worked alongside a network of local academics, entrepreneurs and farmers to develop a new system of cropping for small farms and invented the small-scale machinery to make it possible.

“Applied on small farms, the Conservation Agriculture system uses up to 86% less fuel for crop establishment, 34% less labour and up to 33% less water. This means anywhere from a 48% to 560% increase in profits for Bangladeshi farmers, according to our surveys,” said Professor Bell.

It also delivers higher yields and, importantly, results in a 30% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and improves soil quality. This makes it a transformational farming system for those in developing nations to be able to access it.

“Seeing the sort of benefits you can generate from research, seeing what these small farmers currently have and what a difference it can make for them, and knowing we’re addressing critical issues on farms in Bangladesh, is really gratifying.”

This project is symbolic of his teaching and research in Australia and abroad – always collaborative, community minded and addressing real world problems that people have.

 

Professor Bell has won several university awards, as voted by his peers, in recognition of his excellent energetic contribution to researching and teaching soil, environmental, land management and agriculture science.

He has built and led teams to work on a wide range of topics, including micronutrients, macronutrients, conservation farming, salinity, land suitability assessment and measurement, aluminum tolerance, and amendment of sandy soil using clay, and organic sources.

“The most satisfying part of the award is that it recognises the outstanding contributions of many students, colleagues and collaborators in research over the years in Australia and internationally,” said Professor Bell.

“It’s also an opportunity to thank and acknowledge those that have invested in the research that I’ve done, particularly ACIAR, GRDC, Soil CRC, DPIRD, CSIRO, ARC, grower groups and, of course, Murdoch University.” 

In the next few years, Professor Bell is focused on outscaling the Conservation Agriculture practices and improved nutrient management practices the team has developed in Bangladesh. He’ll also be continuing his contribution to local agriculture.

“In Western Australian, we’re working with DPIRD, GRDC and the private sector on new recommendations for balanced potassium fertiliser use for grain production,” said Professor Bell.

“More broadly we will be involved in research to alleviate subsoil constraints, together with partners in SoilsWest and the SoilCRC.

“We also expect to develop more effective practices for biofortification of grains, particularly in zinc content, for its benefit in human nutrition and health.”

Professor Bell says the new WA Agricultural Research Consortium is a very exciting development that will open up other avenues for partnerships on soil research that can have a positive impact on WA agriculture. And as the world opens up again, so do opportunities for more impactful projects.

“So much of agricultural research is about being in the field with farmers and interpreting soils in relation to crop performance, land use and hydrology and understanding how that fits with a farmer’s and a community’s aspirations. You can’t do that through zoom, you need to be there.”

Professor Bell's work contributes to United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 1 and 2, to eliminate poverty and hunger around the world.

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Posted on:

16 Jan 2023

Topics:

Science, Research

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