A WORLD AWAY: Hillsboro soybean farmer visits South AfricaJoel Thorsrud took a trip to the other side of the world. He saw food riots, people in need and an opportunity to build markets for U.S. soybeans.
By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek
Joel Thorsrud took a trip to the other side of the world. He saw food riots, people in need and an opportunity to build markets for U.S. soybeans.
“It was certainly an interesting trip,” the Hillsboro, N.D., farmer said.
Thorsrud traveled to South Africa in late August and early September for a conference on soybean innovation in Africa. About 1,700 people from 59 countries attended.
Thorsrud, a director of the United Soybean Board, was part of a U.S. delegation representing the World Initiative for Soy in Human Health, or WISHH, program.
The United Soybean Board oversees the investment of soybean checkoff money on behalf of all U.S. soybean farmers. The USB is among the organizations supporting WISHH.
The WISHH program, administered by the American Soybean Association, works in 23 countries to improve diets and encourage growth of U.S. soybean exports.
WISHH is a “basic market development entity,” the efforts of which “end up increasing the demand for soy, U.S. soy in particular,” said Jared Hagert, an Emerado, N.D., farmer and vice president of the program.
Hagert was not on the African trip.
He said WISHH works like this:
It provides soy products to bakers, millers and others to include in their end products.
The products then are supplied to a food manufacturer in the target country, with WISHH providing an expert to train people there in how to make best use of the soy products.
The program “creates a demand for soy products in places that are protein-deficient and, in turn, it benefits the people of the world by providing a high-quality protein source that will aid in the development of the minds and bodies of their children,” Hagert said.
More than 40 percent of U.S. soybeans are exported.
Soybeans can be used in many ways, including livestock feed and industrial products such as crayons and cosmetics.
But soybeans “are excellent for human consumption, too. They can provide high-quality nutrition for a lot of hungry people,” Thorsrud said.
Textured soy protein, dried for long shelf life, seems to hold the most potential for African consumption, he said.
Soy milk also appeals to Africans, although its cost is higher than some of them can afford, he said.
Meet ‘Mama Soy’
In Africa, Thorsrud met Abbie Mchunu, a former South African Member of Parliament who’s known as “Mama Soy” because of her support for making greater use of soybeans in Africans’ diet.
“She’s very enthusiastic about soybeans. She understands how they can help African children,” he said.
While in Africa, Thorsrud and several other U.S. soybean officials took a brief side trip to neighboring Mozambique, where they planned to visit several sites of agricultural interest.
But violent rioting broke out in Mozambique over rising food prices — the government pushed up the price of bread 30 percent — and Thorsrud and the others were stuck at the hotel.
The trip to Mozambique, which included seeing trucks loaded with armed soldiers, was tense. Thirteen people were killed during the rioting, according to news reports.
Thorsrud said he and the other Americans eventually were able to return to the airport and leave the country.
Thorsrud is a member of the United Soybean Board’s domestic marketing committee. Normally, he isn’t involved in the organization’s international marketing.
But he had a last-minute opportunity to participate in the African trip and decided to take it.
South Africa didn’t import any U.S. soybeans last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service website.
The country’s climate and soil aren’t suited to soybeans, and farmers there aren’t likely to become serious competitors to U.S. bean farmers, Thorsrud said.
Before the trip, Thorsrud said, he wondered how much good it would do.
“I thought it was probably the right thing to do (from a humanitarian viewpoint). But I asked myself if it would really promote our market in countries that are basically poor,” he said.
After seeing people in need in Africa, Thorsrud said, he’s certain that U.S. soybeans can fill a major nutritional need, both in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent.
He said that conversations with WISHH Executive Director Jim Hersey, who also went on the African trip, convinced him that promoting soybeans there makes economic sense for U.S. bean farmers.
“Ten to 15 years down the road, it will likely increase our market,” Thorsrud said.
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