There were infinite (and well-documented) reasons why it was a terrible idea to invest millions of dollars in getting Afghans to grow soybeans. But the United States did it anyway.
Afghanistan has a rich culinary tradition, but soybeans have not been a part of it. American agricultural experts who consider soybeans a superfood find this dismaying, and so over the past four years, they have invested tens of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to try to change the way Afghans eat.
The effort, aimed at making soy a dietary staple, has largely been a flop, marked by mismanagement, poor government oversight, and financial waste, according to interviews and government audit documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
Warnings in 2008 by British agronomists that the effort was unwise were ignored. The country's climate turns out to be inappropriate for soy cultivation and its farming culture is ill-prepared for large-scale soybean production. Soybeans are now no more a viable commercial crop in Afghanistan than they were in 2010, when the $34 million program got started, according to a government-funded evaluation of the effort this year.
These are the bureaucratic explanations. The ambitious effort also appears to have been undone by a simple fact, which might have been foreseen but was evidently ignored: Afghans don't like the taste of the soy-processed foods. This view survived even the U.S. government's use of what it called "food technologists" to teach families how soybean products can be used to make tasty meals.
As one of the project's managers said, it was a "risky but honorable endeavor," meant to improve the nutrition of malnourished Afghans by raising the level of protein in their diets. As such, the project's problems model the larger shortcomings of the estimated $120 billion U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, including what many experts depict as ignorance of Afghan traditions, mismanagement, and poor spending controls.
No one has calculated precisely how much the United States wasted or misspent in Afghanistan, but a special congressionally chartered group known as the Commission on Wartime Contracting estimated in 2011 that it could be nearly a third of the total. A special auditor appointed by President Barack Obama the following year said he discovered nearly $7 billion worth of Afghanistan-related waste in just his first year on the job.
"We didn't have a reconstruction effort, we just spent a lot of money," mostly to get the Afghan military working and keep its government afloat, commented Anthony H. Cordesman, a Middle East specialist and former defense intelligence analyst who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonprofit group in Washington. The funds allocated to rebuild the country mostly went to "short-term aid projects, without an assessment of the overall economy, with reliance on contractors. And for most of the time you didn't have effective auditing procedures," Cordesman said.
The Afghan diet reform effort, formally known as the Soybeans for Agricultural Renewal in Afghanistan Initiative, was overseen by the Agriculture Department (USDA) and implemented by the main trade association for the industry, the American Soybean Association. It encountered problems from the start.
The first crop failed in 2011, and subsequent harvests didn't produce enough soybeans to operate a special factory in Mazar-e-Sharif -- constructed and managed by a nonprofit organization based in Iowa at a cost of at least $1.5 million -- that was meant to create a local soybean economy. Afghan farmers participating in the project, discouraged by crop failures, largely abandoned their growing efforts.
As a result, the factory has instead been forced to use at least 4,000 metric tons of soybeans imported from America at a cost of more than $2 million. But its operation has been so hobbled by shortages that those involved in the project worry that its equipment could soon be dismantled and sold by its local owner.
In March, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko met with project and government employees in the country who told him there is no "significant demand for soybean products in Afghanistan," as he wrote in a letter the following month to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. "This should have been expected, since Afghans apparently have never grown or eaten soybeans before," Sopko wrote.
Moreover, those running the program told him that "Afghans don't like the taste of bread made with soybean flour," Sopko wrote. He requested that the department turn over all of its internal documents on the program.
Then, after reviewing the documents, Sopko wrote Vilsack again in June, expressing alarm that a feasibility study was not performed before the department started spending tens of millions of dollars on the idea, and that it was not halted when problems were flagged in a USDA-financed review this February.
"What is troubling about this particular project is that it appears that many of these problems could have been foreseen and, therefore, possibly avoided," Sopko said.
Asked for comment, the Agriculture Department called Sopko's criticisms "premature." Spokeswoman Gwen Sparks said, "The project has produced positive results in the direct distribution of soybean products, renovation of irrigation systems, and rehabilitation of farm-to-market roads." She also said the effort, slated to end in five months, was modified after the special expert review and would be reexamined before it is extended.
But Food for Progress, the USDA program financing the soybean project, has a broader history of mismanagement and oversight failings, according to a March 2014 report by USDA Assistant Inspector General for Audit Gil H. Harden.
The program has "significant ... management control weaknesses," Harden wrote about Food for Progress. His audit did not encompass the soybean project. But 10 of 11 food aid projects it did examine lacked required status reports, and so they could not be properly assessed by those in charge, his report said.
A Large Program Sprouts From a Small Taste Test
By all accounts, the idea for the soybeans-in-Afghanistan endeavor came from Steven Kwon, a food biochemist who first visited the country 11 years ago, while he was a nutritionist in California with the Nestlé food company, to give a lecture at Balkh University in Mazar-e-Sharif. He became convinced that Afghans needed more protein in their diets, according to Sonia Kwon, his daughter, who handles public relations for the effort.
During a subsequent visit to Mazar-e-Sharif, Kwon held a blind taste test between two beverages -- one a soy-based product, the other milk-based -- with about 20 participants, including university faculty and students, local government officials, and community leaders, according to Sonia Kwon. She said that every member of the panel preferred the soy-based product.
This tiny, unscientific survey formed the foundation of the U.S. government's four-year effort to change the Afghan diet, according to multiple sources.
To promote his vision of a soybean-filled Afghan future, Kwon formed a nonprofit company called Nutrition and Education International, retired from Nestlé, and started trying to teach Afghans the wonders of the bean. His funding came solely from private donors, and by 2009 his budget of $752,000 funded small-scale soybean projects in 26 provinces.
Eventually, Kwon reached out to Jim Hershey, who runs the American Soybean Association's long-standing effort to promote the use of soybeans in food aid. They were at a 2008 soybean trade conference in St. Louis when Kwon approached Hershey and said, "Let's do a project together," Hershey told the Center in an interview.
Kwon said that after Hershey accompanied him on a trip to Afghanistan, Hershey suggested they obtain federal funding for the effort. The trade group was a logical partner. Hershey's operation, known as the World Initiative for Soy in Human Health, had overseen several dozen food aid projects since its creation in 2000, mostly in Central America and Africa -- albeit at a comparatively low annual budget of around $2 million. The association has repeatedly touted the way such projects can create new soy markets.
A 2009 project with food processors in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua noted, for example, that "this type of technical assistance ... opens the door for increased sales of U.S. soy ingredients." The program's chairman, David Iverson, wrote in a 2010 annual report that "three powerful sources influence our compass: More people. More demand for soy protein. More buying power in developing countries."
The association previously had little experience with teaching large-scale soy cultivation or overseeing the construction of soy protein factories, Hershey acknowledged. But he said the association's board had approved a strategic plan for 2009 to 2010 that called for expanding its development work. "We saw it as an opportunity to put our shoulder to the wheel," Hershey said, distinguishing this aim from "building the demand side of the value chain."
The association had, moreover, forged close ties to officials in Washington.
Its annual conference in Washington, typically held at a hotel on Capitol Hill and co-hosted with agriculture giants such as Cargill, Monsanto, and Archer Daniels Midland, regularly attracts foreign aid officials from the USDA and other agencies, as well as lawmakers such as Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (D-Ill.), providing its co-sponsors with coveted access to key decision-makers.
The USDA did not ask for a feasibility study, Hershey said. So he and Kwon jointly submitted a proposal to the USDA in the summer of 2009, where it eventually wound up on the desk of Janet Nuzum, the assistant administrator of the Foreign Agricultural Service, who signed it. She's an Obama political appointee and former registered lobbyist for the International Dairy Foods Association, where she was general counsel and vice president for international affairs from 1997 to 2002. In 1999, she and Steve Censky, the soy association's top official, were both members of the same USDA advisory committee on foreign trade agreements.
Censky said he did not recall meeting Nuzum there, and Nuzum did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the reasons she signed off on the funding. But Ron Croushorn, director of the Food Assistance Division at the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, said in an interview that the department was mostly impressed by what Kwon had accomplished.
He said the USDA staff-level evaluator for the proposal noted the absence of any prior feasibility analysis for a major program but hailed the fact that "there had been a lot of work in the soybean sector" in Afghanistan by Kwon's group.
Nuzum and Censky agreed in September 2010 on the scope, duration, and funding for the project, making it the second-most-costly such grant approved by the USDA that year. The contract specified that the project managers would use existing soybean association affiliates as subcontractors. So an Iowa-based nonprofit, SALT International, whose president had done previous work for the association, was brought on board to build and manage the soybean processing factory and train its workers.
In December, the first of the project's three country directors was hired, and Nuzum went to Portsmouth, Virginia, to celebrate the first shipment of 80 tons of American-made soy flour -- provided by Cargill -- for Mazar-e-Sharif. The program, Nuzum wrote on the USDA blog after her visit, would ultimately benefit 400,000 Afghans, and help transform Afghanistan from a "food insecure nation -- unable to produce or procure enough food to feed its people."
"It's more than soy flour," Nuzum wrote. "For many Afghans, it's a hope."
A few months later, however, Kwon and his organization -- which had played a key role in winning the contract -- withdrew from the effort altogether, following a dispute with the trade association over the project's goals. They couldn't agree on "strategy and vision," a program participant said. They "would not have been good partners."
Steven Kwon told the Center in an interview that he disagreed with the soybean association's demand that farmers sell soybeans to the processing factory, instead of using the product to feed their families at home. "They used us to get the grant and then, when they received the grant, they started dictating, overriding our core value," Kwon said.
Jim Hershey told the Center that Kwon's group's insistence on teaching the farmers how to cook soybeans for home use was "a deal breaker."
"That's their philosophy, but it wasn't the philosophy of this development project," Hershey said. "The farm is just the first step in the value chain. If the farm is consuming the soybeans, that runs counter to the project."
Kwon's departure in the spring of 2011 -- two months before the first planting took place in June -- initially left the association without a partner to manage soy production, as well as the cooking and nutrition seminars and soy distribution. Those tasks were subsequently picked up by a nonprofit Minnesota company originally hired to construct and repair roads and irrigation systems, known as Shelter For Life.
But "the loss of NEI as the production partner in the first few months of implementation ... has had a negative impact on the possibilities for success," according to the February 2014 independent evaluation of the program financed by the USDA, a copy of which was obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
Sowing but Not Reaping
The program ran into early trouble when its new planting managers, who had prior experience in the northern Afghan province of Takhar, decided to plant a soybean seed variety there that required four months to reach maturity. A major snowfall occurred in late September, before the harvest, and most of the crop was lost.
"The season in Takhar," the independent evaluation noted, "is just too short."
As it turns out, a feasibility study conducted three years earlier by a British group, Joint Development Associates International, for the principal British foreign aid organization highlighted the special challenges posed by Afghanistan's weather patterns. It concluded that "the crop production cycle and available water means that soybeans do not fit profitably into the Afghan farming system."
The group's report, obtained by the Center, said it "strongly advise[d] against any further encouragement of farmers growing soybeans in Afghanistan." It bluntly noted that while many government agencies "have been approached by people wanting to promote soybean production," agreeing to do so would result in "the waste of development funding."
Hershey said he was unfamiliar with the British report until 2013, and that "had we known about the report, we might have approached things a little bit differently."
According to the independent evaluation for USDA, the Afghans recruited into the U.S.-led effort were predominantly illiterate, small subsistence farmers, who resisted planting soybean seeds as densely as they should have, sharply reducing crop yields. They also had no crop insurance, so the early crop failure due to weather killed their family income.
It "put the program in total jeopardy because farmers are told this is going to work, we've got your market, and then the crops fail because you don't have the varieties right," said Don Dwyer, a private agricultural consultant who has worked on crop substitution in Afghanistan with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of Defense.
The independent evaluation, conducted by EnCompass LLC, based in Rockville, Maryland, said that while thousands of farmers received training and planted soybeans in 2011 and 2012, fewer than 100 of those farmers replanted in 2013.
The project's first country director left in November 2012, and the second left the project on Oct. 15, 2013. The third was the association's former regional office director in Istanbul; he was teamed with an Afghan spokesperson to serve as a liaison to the Afghan government, part of what Hershey called the "Afghanization" of the project.
The program also cycled through five chief agronomists over a three-year period, according to the EnCompass report. "It was a revolving door," one of the project's members told EnCompass, which concluded that staffing gaps "seem to have undermined implementation." The report added that those with a stake in the project's success concluded that "leadership in-country did not have the requisite experience in agriculture or rural development to oversee the project."
The program also ran into a host of troubles that have afflicted other U.S.-led Afghanistan aid programs:
- Shelter for Life staff members were unable to reach some soybean "production areas" due to security risks, which included three kidnapping threats and farmers who responded with guns in hand when the staff attempted to verify that seeds had been received and planted, according to the EnCompass report.
- One of the agronomists quit when Takhar was hit by riots, Hershey said. Bombings there made clear that "we were dealing with a place with all kinds of risks I hadn't dealt with before," he said.
- The soybean processing factory was initially supposed to be constructed at an industrial park in Kabul, the capital, but "security issues" there forced its construction instead in Mazar-e-Sharif, roughly 100 miles from where the soybeans were planted, the report said. It said this drove up costs.
- Traditional discrimination made it hard for women to pick up soy shipments and attend sessions meant to train them on using soy flour. Due to these and other problems, indigenous farmers in 2013 produced less than 3 percent of the 4,500 metric tons per year needed for the factory to operate at full capacity.
The soybean association responded to the evaluators' blunt critique that success would take more time -- at least five to seven years "to introduce a new crop," according to the report.
But the signs are not good. As of this spring, the report said, the program's managers still had not figured out a "mechanical" planting method and the best cultivation techniques to increase yields. And data show that soy is not "more profitable than alternative crops," giving farmers in the program little incentive to keep going.
The largest challenge, however, may be the most fundamental one -- namely, how to make Afghans appreciate the product's taste and want to buy it.
The soybean association, in its formal response to the evaluation, said it was "in the process of conducting a baking study to determine the optimum amount of low fat soy flour that can be incorporated into Afghan naan [bread] while maintaining total acceptability to local Afghan people."
In the interview, Hershey said that "most of our acceptability work" suggests that making naan with 4 to 5 percent soy flour will extend its shelf life without greatly changing its traditional flavor. But many Afghans, he added, still "aren't ready to pay a little more" for what's being sold under the label "Strong Naan."
The slight impact of the soy effort mirrors the shortcomings of larger U.S. development programs in Afghanistan. As the United States prepares to exit the country, the partly functioning soy factory may eventually be abandoned, serving as yet another relic of good Western intentions in a land with its own identity.
This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Consulate Mazar-e Sharif via Facebook