Why Would the USDA Waste $34 Million on Soybeans in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan, soybeans, USDA, SARAI, Leon Kaye, Quintin Gray, SALT International, American Soybean Association
Employees at the northern Afghanistan soy flour factory.

Many of us have already concluded the 13-year war and military involvement in Afghanistan has been a horrific waste of blood and treasure with no ideal resolution in sight. But among the many throttled programs the U.S. has tried to implement in this proud, landlocked country is one especially laughable if not absurd.

In 2010 the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in a partnership with the American Soybean Association and SALT International, launched SARAI, or the Soybeans in Agricultural Renewal of Afghanistan Initiative. The goal was to haul American soybean processing equipment, and of course soybeans, into northern Afghanistan to start a soy-farming industry under the guise of nutrition and economic development. Optimism was rampant even two years ago:

“It’s great to see the Afghan and U.S. partners get this soybean processing facility up and operating. It will help Afghanistan agriculture continue to develop.” -U.S. Foreign Agricultural Service Agriculture Minister Counselor Quintin Gray, in September 2012.

Then the stubborn reality hit.

John F. Sopko, an attorney from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, revealed concerns over the “viability” of the project. In fact, for several reasons that one would think common sense would have sorted out, the project has failed. Among the factors: the American Soybean Association did not bother to conduct any feasibility studies before the program’s launch; a United Kingdom study a few years earlier confirmed soybean cultivation were not feasible in northern Afghanistan; and well, Afghans like their naan made from wheat. According to the Center for Public Integrity, despite the fact there is no history of soy consumption in Afghanistan, an informal 20-person taste test led to the conclusion that soy products could catch on in this country of 30 million people.

The outcomes: the first crop failed; more soybeans in turn were imported from the U.S. Midwest to Afghanistan for a special factory built to process the beans into flour, oil and other soy products; and despite a pledge to spend over $1 million on marketing and training bakers to use soy products in their breads, locals simply did not like the results. The factory that had received the expensive equipment may end up selling it off soon to close its operations.

You could argue the program had noble goals, which is true for just about every anti-famine and economic development program undertaken in developing countries. True, Afghanistan ranks low on many human development indices, which is hardly a surprise since the country has been in turmoil since the 1970s.

But the failed SARAI project is an example in which business groups’ self-interest trumps local sensitivities. Despite the depictions often given to us by media accounts of the recent wars in Afghanistan, the country’s cuisine ranks with that of Iran in terms of variety and sophistication in the greater Central Asian and Middle Eastern region. Afghan craftsmanship also reigns supreme, from woodwork to ceramics. Visit a souq in the Gulf region and you will see countless Afghan antiques and crafts—a testament to the quality of the work coming from Afghanistan and how tragically the country has been looted in recent years.

The $34 million is a drop in the bucket considering that $7 billion of the $120 billion spent on reconstruction in Afghanistan have been wasted on dubious projects. There exists other methods of ensuring infrastructure in Afghanistan improves, like teaching farmers new tactics to improve yields on foods people want to eat, and boosting citizens’ skills so that could provide for their families and build stronger communities. But instead, the U.S. government once again opened its checkbook to U.S. business interests, which should have fronted the money themselves if they were so confident this boondoggle would have worked, for a program that benefited no one.

Image credit: SALT International Facebook Page

Leon Kaye has lived in Abu Dhabi for the past year and is on his way back to California. Follow him on Instagram and nd Twitter.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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