U.S. squan­dered mil­lions grow­ing soy­beans in arid Afghan soil

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY KEL­LAN HOW­ELL

Call it the great Amer­i­can soy­bean heist, the lat­est tale of U.S. tax­payer abuse to em­anate from Afghanistan.

De­spite clear ev­i­dence that Afghanistan’s arid soil was a bad place to grow soy­beans, the U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture spent $34.4 mil­lion try­ing to es­tab­lish the crop in that coun­try, ac­cord­ing to the Spe­cial In­spec­tor Gen­eral for Afghanistan Re­con­struc­tion.

The money was routed to a trade group, the Amer­i­can Soy­bean As­so­ci­a­tion, as part of a hu­man­i­tar­ian ef­fort to im­prove food se­cu­rity and re­duce de­pen­dence on food im­ports, but fed­eral watch­dogs found the idea was poorly con­ceived how­ever well-in­ten­tioned.

Of most con­cern, the fed­eral agency ap­par­ently ig­nored stud­ies by the United King­dom’s De­part­ment for In­ter­na­tional Devel­op­ment that con­cluded soy­beans were in­ap­pro­pri­ate for con­di­tions and farm­ing prac­tices in Afghanistan.

“I un­der­stand that Afghanistan’s op­er­at­ing en­vi­ron­ment poses daunt­ing chal­lenges for re­con­struc­tion and devel­op­ment pro­grams, and that any project in the coun­try is bound to meet its fair share of dif­fi­cul­ties,” In­spec­tor Gen­eral John F. Sopko wrote in a let­ter to Agri­cul­ture Sec­re­tary Thomas J. Vil­sack made pub­lic Thurs­day.

“How­ever, 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,” Mr. Sopko added.

The stud­ies proved to be true. Afghan farm­ers pro­duced neg­li­gi­ble amounts of soy, and the sus­tain­abil­ity of the ma­jor soy­bean pro­cess­ing fa­cil­ity is in se­ri­ous doubt be­cause there is not enough prod­uct for the fa­cil­ity to be eco­nom­i­cally vi­able, in­ves­ti­ga­tors found.

Fur­ther­more, there isn’t a sig­nif­i­cant de­mand for soy­bean prod­ucts in Afghanistan, ac­cord­ing to SIGAR’s anal­y­sis.

In its re­sponse to Mr. Sopko’s let­ter, the USDA ac­knowl­edged that the pro­gram’s suc­cess was un­cer­tain.

“To date, pos­i­tive out­comes for soy­bean pro­duc­tion and the long-term op­er­a­tion of the soy pro­cess­ing plant have not oc­curred,” agency officials wrote, adding that the USDA and the soy­bean lobby were ne­go­ti­at­ing plan mod­i­fi­ca­tions to ad­dress those is­sues.

For ig­nor­ing sci­en­tific ev­i­dence and spend­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian dol­lars on a project with a high risk of fail­ure, the USDA and the Amer­i­can Soy­bean As­so­ci­a­tion win this week’s Golden Ham­mer, a dis­tinc­tion from The Wash­ing­ton Times high­light­ing ex­am­ples of fed­eral mis­spending, waste, fraud or abuse.

“This is a good ex­am­ple of what hap­pens when we have an agency like the USDA that’s push­ing a pol­icy that’s want­ing to plant for K Street in­stead of Main Street,” said Joshua Sewell, a se­nior pol­icy an­a­lyst at the non­par­ti­san Tax­pay­ers for Com­mon Sense.

“It’s amaz­ing that they would do that, the fact that they didn’t do a fea­si­bil­ity study be­fore em­bark­ing on this large project is just in­dica­tive of a prob­lem in plan­ning,” Mr. Sewell said. “We see that a lot in USDA. If you’re go­ing to un­der­take these kinds of projects, you need to do your re­search to see if there is even a chance of suc­ceed­ing.”

In an email state­ment to The Times, the USDA said it would con­tinue with the pro­gram and wait for fi­nal anal­y­sis to de­ter­mine the project’s ac­tual prof­itabil­ity.

“USDA be­lieves that this is a pre­ma­ture judg­ment on the Amer­i­can Soy­bean As­so­ci­a­tion’s pro­gram. There have been vary­ing stud­ies con­cern­ing the vi­a­bil­ity of soy­bean pro­duc­tion in North­ern Afghanistan. The project’s ac­tiv­i­ties will end in De­cem­ber 2014, and USDA will make a fi­nal eval­u­a­tion on the project af­ter all re­sults are re­ceived.”

Ac­cord­ing to the SIGAR re­port, the pro­gram’s main pro­cess­ing plant could pro­duce soy prod­ucts such as an­i­mal feed, oil and flour. The plant needed to pro­duce mostly soy flour to re­main eco­nom­i­cally prof­itable, the re­port said.

For the main soy­bean pro­cess­ing fa­cil­ity to op­er­ate at full ca­pac­ity, farm­ers need to har­vest 5,000 to 5,500 tons of soy­beans. In the 2013 har­vest sea­son, farm­ers were able to pro­duce only 177 tons, ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can Soy­bean As­so­ci­a­tion’s midterm re­port re­leased in Fe­bru­ary.

To make up for the de­fi­ciency in Afghan soy, 4,400 tons of Amer­i­can soy were flown to Afghanistan at a cost of $2 mil­lion.

Farm­ers were given in­ad­e­quate train­ing, with short and in­con­ve­nient hours, be­fore they were sent to sow their crops, ac­cord­ing to the re­port. They re­ceived an in­struc­tion man­ual at the end of the ses­sion, even though many are il­lit­er­ate.

Many of the farm­ers sim­ply ate the seeds and used the fer­til­izer on other crops. Those who did plant soy ex­pe­ri­enced such low crop yields that they were dis­cour­aged from try­ing again.

Ad­di­tion­ally, there is not enough ev­i­dence to prove that do­mes­ti­cally pro­duced soy­beans are any cheaper than im­ported ones, ac­cord­ing to the midterm re­port.

“Pro­duc­tion data from … re­li­able sources do not demon­strate that lo­cally pro­duced soy can be more prof­itable than al­ter­na­tive crops, or that soy can be lo­cally sourced at con­tract prices that are cheaper than im­por­ta­tion.”

Af­ter all these ef­forts, it turns out that Afghanistan has lit­tle de­mand for soy.

“Afghans don’t like the taste of bread made with soy­bean flour,” pro­gram man­agers told SIGAR.

Spe­cial In­spec­tor Gen­eral for Afghanistan Re­con­struc­tion John F. Sopko in­spects soy­beans in Mazar-e Sharif. Afghan farm­ers pro­duced neg­li­gi­ble amounts of soy, and the sus­tain­abil­ity of the ma­jor soy­bean pro­cess­ing fa­cil­ity is in se­ri­ous doubt be­cause there is not enough prod­uct for the fa­cil­ity to be eco­nom­i­cally vi­able.

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