Politics

07.25.14

How the USDA Blew Millions on Afghan Soybeans

Some $34.4 million in taxpayer dollars went to a U.S. trade group to open Afghanistan to a crop its people couldn’t stomach.

The residents of northern Afghanistan had never grown soybeans. They have no natural taste for them. And previous research concluded that the area wasn’t viable for soybean cultivation.

Despite these obvious hurdles, the United States Department of Agriculture handed some $34.4 million in taxpayer funds to the soybean industry’s trade association for the purposes of running a soybean program in northern Afghanistan.

There were, predictably, disastrous results.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a scathing report (PDF) describing a series of problems with the program. Most important was that the United States funded a project to promote a food item that Afghans had never actually expressed a desire for.

“The significant problems creating a market for soybean products in Afghanistan should have been expected since Afghans apparently have never grown or eaten soybeans before,” the SIGAR office wrote dryly. The inspector general found, after speaking with local program representatives, that “Afghans don’t like the taste of bread made with soybean flour.”

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began a program to promote soybean cultivation and consumption in Afghanistan, implemented by an organization whose stated mission is to increase the market value of soybeans—the American Soybean Association.

An American-funded soybean-processing facility was set up in northern Afghanistan, but has been hampered by the fact that few locals wanted to eat or cultivate soybeans.

In an attempt to jump-start factory operations, the USDA shipped 4,000 tons of soybeans to Afghanistan, with the expectation that the factory would continue operating with locally produced soybeans. But farmers, understandably, were reluctant to invest in a crop that didn’t have a proven market.

In hindsight, the whole program looks all the more foolhardy, since the American Soybean Association conducted no studies to assess the feasibility of a soybean project before starting the Afghan program with U.S. funds.

Worse yet, those who had studied the issue had already dismissed it. The U.K. Department for International Development conducted research on the prospect of soybean farming in northern Afghanistan years before the American program began, and had concluded that the area was inappropriate for it.

The USDA argued that insecurity in the region hampered soybean production, and that the American Soybean Association had difficulties staffing its program.

But officials did acknowledge that some problems with the program “may have been avoided” had they weighed the feasibility of the project before, well, starting the project.

The soybean program is still underway, and is to end this year.

The American Soybean Association disputed the SIGAR report, telling The Daily Beast that the “project has made a positive impact on the Afghan rural economy, infrastructure, and livelihood in spite of working in a very challenging environment.”