The Rice Magician: Story of Dr. M.A. Salam
M.A. Salam is the man responsible for one third of the rice that 160 million Bangladeshis consume every day. No, he is not a super farmer, or cook. He is a rice breeder; scientist Dr. M. A. Salam.
Dr. Salam was born in 1953, in the Village Kanchon of Mahadebpur, Naogaon. He is humble in appearance. He believes in simple living, and high thinking. He has invented more than 15 breeds of rice including most popularly taken 'Najishail' grain. Bangladesh has three cropping seasons- from April to July 'Aoush', July to November 'Amon' and from December to March 'Boro'. Mid June to September is the rainy season in here. During that time, whole country suffers heavy rain, floods and water logged areas. Farmers from north eastern part-Sylhet, Sunamgonj, Moulovibajar districts- face flash flood immersing the crop fields weeks before the harvest which damages the yield.
Salam's first work was inventing water submergence tolerant rice breed for the north-eastern farmers. This variety could survive up to 15 days surrounded by the water. During his 30 years of carrier he invented submergence tolerant rice BR-17, BR-18, BR-19, high yielding 'Amon' rice-BRRI 30, BRRI 31, Short maturity 'Amon' rice-BRRI 33, BRRI-39; for the southern farmers salt tolerant rice variety- BRRI-40 and BRRI-41, and scented rice grain variety BRRI 37, BRRI 38 and 'Banglamoti' BRRI-50.
"I wanted to work with rice variety because it is the main crop of our country, I have seen how a bad yield affects the farmers as well as the food market." said Dr. Salam. He worked with Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) from 1977 to 2009. Currently, he is working with BRAC as an Advisor of the Agriculture and Food Security Programme. "I work with 'inbreed' varieties, one of the distinctions of inbreed from hybrids is farmers can collect and conserve rice seeds from inbreed varieties. Presently I'm working to develop a short maturing rice variety with thin grains. Usually short maturing variety grains are stocky." More than 30 years BRAC has been working in the sector of agriculture and food security. In two BRAC agricultural research centres scientists are working to develop high yielding climate adaptive better crop varieties to ensure better harvest and higher profit for the farmers, BRAC agriculture programme is also operating credit programme specifically designed for tenant farmers and other programme targeting the cyclone affected people. After retiring from BRRI, Dr. M. A. Salam joined BRAC in its fight of ensuring food security on the path to eradicate poverty.
Since childhood Salam was an industrious pupil. He used to stand first in his class. In grade 4 he once decided to leave his school. "In the opening class of grade 4, I found that though I have stood first in our final exam, girls who placed second, third or fourth had been promoted to grade five! Our class teacher's reason was the girls would be married off, so he wanted to complete their primary education hurriedly. It was unbearable for me, I did not want to go to that school anymore.'' said Salam laughing. He finished his secondary school certificate exam from another school at a one hour walking distance.
After completing the S.S.C he entered the Agriculture University in Mymensingh. Salam's father Abu Taher Dewan motivated him to enroll there. The university was offering scholarship and stipend to any student attending which made it easier for Salam with his economical condition. Being a student of Arts up to the secondary level, it was not easy for him to cope with the mathematical studies. However, through hard work he secured 97% marks in the final exam. He completed his B.S.S and M.S.S with distinction and joined Bangladesh Rice research institute in 1977.
In 1985 Dr. Salam received scholarship for his Ph. D in International Rice Research Institute, Philippines. He had then already invented the rice variety BR-17, BR-18, BR-19 and received skilled worker award from BRRI for his contribution.
A range of rice varieties show photoperiod sensitivity which interested Salam. Photo period sensitivity is the responsiveness of plants with the length of the day. The blooming of the photo period sensitive plants are triggered by changed length of day-light. Dr. Salam chose this as his thesis topic. He studied the genetic as well as physical characteristics of 'photo period sensitive' or scientifically referred 'Hd-1' plants. Together with his supervisor Dr. David J. Mackill, Salam succeeded to identify a 'marker' for 'Hd-1' plants and features which enabled him to invent a range of rice varieties from 'Shail' category which are photoperiod insensitive.
"During my effort to invent a aromatic rice grain, one day we received a letter from Indian High Commission requesting to discard our research. Misguided by a local newspaper, they thought we were trying to replicate the 'Bashmoti rice'. I sent a response assuring them that we were not exploring 'Basmoti' variety." "After years' toil invented BR-50; a delicate, aromatic rice breed and named it 'Banglamoti'."
In 2006 Dr.Salam received the prestigious 'Sinedhira Rice research award' for his outstanding contribution in agricultural sector. This year he received Food & Agriculture Award 2011 in recognition of his contribution to rice variety development by Campaign for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods (CSRL).
Dr. Salam is the pioneer in using farmer participatory breeding in evaluating breeding lines for unfavorable environment which advanced the development of saline and stagnant water condition adaptive varieties. He worked to develop arsenic-tolerant and iron-rich rice varieties as well as other varieties. He is one of the revolutionaries who has made it possible to achieve food security in bangladesh with a reality of arable land declining at a 1% and population increasing at more than 3% rate.