Last month Professor AHM Mustafizur Rahman, a former DU professor, received “Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite” (National Order of Merit) for his four-decade-long work with the French government related to sustainable agriculture.
Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plants (and all lives on earth). Although nitrogen constitutes 78% of the atmosphere, plants cannot take it directly.
Three fixation processes can make nitrogen acceptable to plants: the one most in use is the man-made method of making chemical fertilisers from natural gas. Then there is atmospheric fixation, where the high temperature of lightning makes nitrates that get mixed in soil with rain.
The most sustainable process is the biological process, where special kinds of bacteria turn nitrogen into a usable form for plants. This process can be enhanced by human interventions which help reduce the use of chemical fertilisers.
Yet, there is little use of this in agriculture, especially in Bangladesh.
It is not that we do not have the necessary scientific research in this field. In fact, there has been significant research in this sector in Bangladesh, led by Dr AHM Mustafizur Rahman, a former professor of the Department of Soil, Water and Environment at the University of Dhaka.
Professor Rahman and the Department of Soil, Water and Environment at Dhaka University worked in partnership with the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), a leading French state research organisation, on boosting crop production through biological means. He also worked on climate change and food security issues.
The cooperation spanned over four decades, starting from 1982.
Late last month, Professor AHM Mustafizur Rahman was awarded the “Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite” (National Order of Merit) by the French government.
“The award was given for my continued devotion to the subject matter and the collaboration between the two countries that ensued. What I started in 1982, continued till 2022,” Dr Rahman told The Business Standard.
Although the research was unique in Bangladesh, many other researchers have pursued it worldwide, the professor humbly clarified.
“At first, our focus was on nitrogen fixation in crop production. We isolated nitrogen-fixing bacteria from three major soil types in Bangladesh and inoculated them to increase crop production.
In other words, we worked to enhance crop production through biological means,” Dr Rahman said.
The introduction of such bacteria in the soil helps the health of the soil and the well-being of the whole ecosystem. There are business opportunities in this. Other countries have been selling the bacteria as a supplement to fertilisers, but we have not been able to do it yet.
This research under the ‘French-Bangladesh Project on Agriculture Development’ was continued until 2002. From 2002 onwards, the partnership embarked on a new project focused on the “erosion of the Himalayas and its impact on Bangladesh.” The goal was to examine the condition of silt the transboundary rivers are bringing in.
Professor Rahman took the lead in the bacterial analysis of the silt. The research found out that the silt coming from the rivers was also carrying in pollution now. Therefore, it was not enriching the soil like before.
Also, the amount of siltation was reduced due to many barriers on the transboundary rivers.
The long collaboration with the French government was set off when Dr Rahman went to France for his PhD studies in 1982. After finishing the degree, he had this option: taking French citizenship and continuing the project there. But his wife, who was also doing her PhD in France, had to return to Bangladesh and resume her government job.
So Dr Rahman chose to come back to Bangladesh and later joined Dhaka University as an assistant professor. Then, he started the project in Bangladesh with funding from the government of France and the EEC. He brought all the equipment for the project as well.
Signing the agreement for the collaboration, however, was not easy. It was the beginning of the ‘green revolution,’ primarily driven by chemical fertilisers and other agricultural inputs. So certain international donor agencies did not quite like the apparent ‘anti-fertiliser’ project.
However, after rounds of meetings with the highest level of the contemporary government of Bangladesh and a lot of persuasion, the agreement was finally signed. Top-level visits of the head of the governments occurred, and a new era of Bangladesh-France collaboration began.
“I had the opportunity to be involved in the visits of two presidents: the French President to Dhaka and the Bangladesh President to Paris. I was also involved in the visit of Madame Mitterrand (Danielle Émilienne Isabelle Mitterrand, the wife of French President François Mitterrand).
I also actively participated in cultural activities at Alliance Française and served as an executive member. I am the founder of the Bangladesh French Friendship Society and the General Secretary of the French Bangladesh Scholars and Trainees,” Professor Rahman reminisced.
Soon after the beginning of the journey, the French government realised that French scientists did not want to come to Bangladesh to work. So it announced that if the young scientists work in Bangladesh for 16 months, they would be exempted from compulsory military service, Dr Rahman said.
This service was later made optional by President Jacques Chirac’s government in 2001.
“Then we got some French scientists,” he continued.
“Through this project, we produced many masters and PhD graduates, both Bangladeshi and French,” Dr Rahman added.
During the research project, partnerships were established with various international organisations such as UNDP, World Bank, WMO, FAO, UNESCAP, etc.
“We also developed partnerships with local private organisations, such as the Islam Group. The Chairman of this Group Late Al-Haj Jahurul Islam provided us with land to conduct our experiments. My students were employed there, and he developed an agriculture-based firm.
Additionally, an analytical laboratory was also set up on the premises,” Dr Rahman explained.
They successfully completed three international conferences with the help of the French Embassy, and the proceedings were published by three international publishers. Over a dozen other papers were also published based on the research of the projects.
There is no other collaboration between the two countries that lasted for 40 years. The French accolade to Professor AHM Mustafizur Rahman is a recognition of this.
Avenues of commercial opportunity
The science and process of using nitrogen-fixing bacteria have advanced a lot lately, the professor said. In the past, the inoculum (the population of microorganisms or cells that is introduced in the fermentation medium or any other suitable medium) was applied in liquid or powder form.
Now it has been captured in capsule form, which can be directly given to a plant.
Here lies the opportunity for the businesses, he said.
“Any pharmaceutical company can make this capsule and market it,” he added. “They won’t have to make big investments. They already have the necessary labs and tools. In France, I have seen pharma companies doing it.”
“There is untapped potential in this field. If Bangladeshi companies venture into this sector, the products can even be exported,” the researcher said, adding that the same can be done with bacteria fixing other essential nutrients too.
When asked where he thinks we are heading with excessive fertiliser use and consequent reduction of soil fertility, the professor said, “Farmers are very intelligent. They found that dependence on chemical fertilisers reduces the fertility of the soil. They also want maximum benefits at a low cost.
Now scientists should come forward with new technologies to help them advance in that direction.”
The end, or the transition
With the collaboration with the Department of Soil, Water and Environment ended last year, the torch has been passed to the dean of the Faculty of Earth & Environmental Sciences, who will now be developing projects to extend the partnership with the French. Professor Rahman will serve as an advisor through the transition.
Bacteria are always evolving. So the research is a continuous process, the professor said.