U.S.-backed soybean project flounders in Afghanistan, after $34M sunk

Audit scolds USDA for greenlighting initiative ‘when Afghans apparently have never grown or eaten soybeans before’

Afghans don’t appear to like soybean products, nor are conditions and farming techniques in the country particularly favorable for soybean production.  

That didn’t stop the U.S. government from sinking approximately $34.4 million into an initiative that was meant to make soybeans both a cash crop and a diet staple in the impoverished, war-torn nation.

A new review released by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), an office created to oversee and audit the billions of dollars in U.S.-funded reconstruction projects, stopped just shy of labeling the soybean project a failure and scolded the U.S. Department of Agriculture for giving it the green light without doing its due diligence.

“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,” read a press advisory from SIGAR, announcing the release of the review.

This particular instance of apparent mismanagement of government funds seems to denote a wider problem in the $100 billion U.S. project of rehabilitating and rebuilding Afghanistan’s economy, infrastructure and security as the last U.S. troops withdraw from the country. Indeed, the office of SIGAR has been kept exceptionally busy uncovering waste and mismanagement by various agencies since it was created by Congress in 2009 to do a full accounting.

This project — the Soybeans for Agricultural Renewal in Afghanistan Initiative — was implemented by the American Soybean Association, after the trade group submitted a proposal to the USDA in July 2009 through its Food for Progress program.

The proposal promised a sophisticated “agricultural development program that will contribute to the trilateral U.S.-Pakistan-Afghanistan efforts of improving food security, water management, and watershed rehabilitation and agricultural corridors.”

Three years later, soybeans seem to be no more of a mass-produced commercial crop than they were in 2010, and Afghans seem to have developed no more of a taste for tofu. Farmers in the northern country have abandoned their efforts after disappointing harvests, and it’s unclear whether a soybean processing plant — built by an Iowa-based nonprofit at a cost of more than $1 million — is economically viable, according to a separate investigation into the project from the Center for Public Integrity.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in June after a visit to inspect the initiative, Special Inspector General John Sopko did not hold back about his concerns. He noted that “scientific research conducted for the UK Department for International Development between 2005 and 2008 concluded that soybeans were inappropriate for conditions and farming practices in northern Afghanistan” and that the American Soybean Association did not conduct “feasibility or value-chain studies” before embarking on the project.

“What is troubling about this particular project is that it appears that many of these problems could reasonably have been foreseen and, therefore, possibly avoided,” Sopko added in his letter, urging Vilsack to re-evaluate and possibly “withhold further investment.”

Jim Hershey, the executive director of the World Initiative for Soy in Human Health, the offshoot of the American Soybean Association that oversees the project, said the SIGAR report was an incomplete representation.

“They zeroed in on a few questions and overlooked the bigger successes that we did achieve,” he said.

Among those successes, Hershey counts rehabilitating rural roads and irrigation systems, providing soy protein to pregnant and lactating women and introducing soybean production techniques to 9,000 farmers. He also noted that soybean products can also be used in livestock and poultry systems in Afghanistan, a market the initiative is currently exploring.

“I think focusing only on whether consumers like soy or not misses the point,” he said.

Hershey said the Department of Agriculture is not extending the initiative’s funding past the $34 million already spent during the last three years, but the initiative would continue to look for other sources.

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