Soyabeans in India

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Soyabeans in India

by K.R. Bhattacharya

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 7, No. 1, January 1975, p. 23 – 25

Science and scientists have been described as instruments of development. Indeed they are. But they can also be used as instruments of underdevelopment and of neo-colonial exploitation. The problems of increasing the production of food in underdeveloped countries have been laid in the lap of Science and Technology. But without appropriate social reforms, Science is powerless and barren, and even dangerous. This is amply born out in the promotion of the production and processing of the soyabean in India. This technology has been subtly and patiently promoted by foreign foundations and experts, and by the agricultural universities backed by them.

Work of several years has recently been brought to fruition with the decision to set up a “most modern” soyabean plant at Hyderbad, for which the most sophisticated machinery is to be imported. This large plant, the first of its kind in the country, would produce food products for protein fortification of children and expectant mothers. UNICEF has shown keen interest in the project and decided to give some free machinery to the plant. As I will show, the U.S. is also keenly interested in the project.

A few facts will make clear the reasons behind the interest and involvement of U.S. imperialists in the project. Soyabean is today the leading cash crop in the U.S. and the primary legume and oil seed in the world. The U.S. is also the world’s leading producer of soyabean accounting for 75% of the world’s output. Soyabean is also the number one product among U.S. agricultural exports. As a matter of fact, soya oil has been the major component of all PL-480 food grants to countries around the world. In the wake of the explosive concern for protein malnutrition all over the world, technologies for making various protein formulations with soyabean have been standardized in the U.S. Within the U.S. soyabean processing is a substantial business. It is the major source of vegetable fats, and the extracted meal with its high protein content is used with corn for making animal feed. In addition, soya protein has been formulated into an impressive array of new luxury products, such as textured protein, vegetable meat, protein drinks, and biscuits.

Promotion of the Soyabean

The promotion of the soyabean in India, not natively grown in any significant amount, must be seen in the above context. The principle arguments advanced in its promotion have been that it can be grown in India with profit, that its yield is high (higher than say that of peanuts), and that because of its high protein content it could go a long way toward solving the protein problem. It could also solve the oil famine in the country. The table below compares the soyabean to the commonly used pulses and peanut in protein and oil content. 

Food Oil
[per cent]
[per cent]
Soyabean 20 40
Peanut (seeds) 40 25
Various pulses 1–2 20–24

Experimentation on growing soyabean was started by various USA-tied unversities and lately by the All-India Coordinated Research Project. Some post harvest processing and utilization studies were initiated in some centers. On the surface the soyabean project has everything to recommend it. 

Soyabean vs. Peanut

The case for soyabean in India has to be seen primarily in the context of the peanut, which is the major oil seed in the country, and also a relatively rich source of protein. In a way, it is the Indian counterpart of the soyabean. The pulses are also very important from the standpoint of protein. 

The yield of soyabean in the U.S.A. is undoubtedly more than that of the peanut in India, but this is of little consequence since practically all crop yields are lower in India. The current yield of soyabean in India is also higher than that of the peanut. But this again is of no significance because considerable research has gone into improving the yield of the soyabean, all of which is being applied in India. Comparable work has either not been done for the peanut or is not being applied due to various socio-economic reasons.

The peanut can also stand comparison with the soyabean as a source of oil. The peanut yields more oil per acre than does the soyabean in all areas of the world. Moreover peanut oil has versatility of use (cooking oil, salad oil, refined oil, and vanaspati) while soyabean oil, because of its flavor properties, is unacceptable as unrefined oil and is used mainly for vanaspati manufacture. 

There is no doubt that soyabean has a higher protein content than does the peanut. But because of its cooking properties soyabeans cannot be consumed after cooking, nor does its common mode of use — as a fermented product — fit into the Indian dietary pattern. To be used then, soyabean has to be technologically processed into various products and formulations. 

Thus any soyabean program in India must have as its aim the use of soyabean as a technological raw material for the manufacture of vanaspati as well as processed protein foods. This is a crucial point. It implies (a) technological ties with developed countries, and (b) drawing the production process away from the common people. But before considering this aspect further, let us have a brief look at the problem of solving protein malnutrition through soyabean technology. 

Solving Protein Malnutrition

Protein malnutrition and its solution are certainly grave problems and any program of soyabean processing for this purpose should be commendable. However, many practical questions arise. First, if protein malnutrition is perceived as such an important problem, why do we export various protein rich oilcakes to protein excess countries, to be wastefully converted into animal protein for luxury consumption there. Second, why have our agricultural universities and planners not done something about the most important Indian protein foods, the pulses. the production of which has been falling in recent years? Is it because they are consumed directly, and do not provide an opportunity for starting a fancy processing industry? Third, for whom are the proposed protein foods to be made? The 60-70% of the population who are in desparate need of protein do not have the purchasing power to buy any food, not to speak of special protein rich formulations. And those that do have the money are not in need, nutritionally, of such food. Would not the protein be diverted for formulating fancy products like textured protein, vegetarian meat, protein rich biscuits. and chocolates — for which a market exists or can easily be created? 

Possible Impact of Soyabean

There is real danger that soyabean may supplant rather than supplement the peanut, the production of which is already well below plan targets, and even pulses. Agricultural experts claim that soyabean will be grown in areas where the peanut is not cultivated because of soil conditions and hence will not replace the peanut. Unfortunately, what will or will not be grown, and where, depends little on scientists and experts, and much more on socio-economic factors. With soyabeans being used as the raw material for processed foods, which may be exported. Soyabean has all the potential for becoming a superior cash crop. When that happens, all other factors will be subordinated, and soyabean is bound to replace the peanut, and perhaps even the pulses. 

The end result of promotion of soyabean with its technological processing in plants such as the one set up in Faridibad, will thus be disastrous under the present socio-economic circumstances. First, by competing with and displacing the peanut and arrogating to itself all research and physical inputs, the availability of oil in the country will decrease rather than increase. And the soyabean oil will go mostly to feed the vanaspati industry for the small affluent section. Second, with respect to fighting protein malnutrition, it will make little contribution, as shown above, and the protein will largely go again to the luxury sector, and perhaps partly for export. As a matter of fact, if soyabean does replace the peanut and the pulses even partly, as it is most likely to do, the availability of protein to the poor people will decrease, not increase.  Third, under the present socio-economic conditions soyabean processing would of course also involve import of technology and machinery, as is indeed going to happen in the Faridabad case.  

Was it not then precisely (a) to push this technology into India and to keep us tied to their soyabean technologies, as well as others to be imported in due course, and (b) to further promote the luxury sector in the country, that soyabean has been patiently promoted in India all these years?

All this is not to say that soyabean has no place in the country. That it can be grown in certain parts of the country with profit, there is no doubt. That under appropriate socio-economic conditions, and as a supplement to peanut and pulses. its production can be beneficial, is also obvious. But two prerequisites to this are: 

  • Indigenous research for its utilization by fully indigenous techniques and indigenous equipment, and
  •  An effective socio-political climate to ensure its utilization for the good of the common people rather than for a luxury sector or ‘export’. 

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The Scientist’s Role

The tragedy is that the takeover of agriculture and agricultural science by industrial interests has been achieved with the full support of Indian scientists themselves. And why not? Is not science neutral? Are not scientists required and even admonished to see only the ‘scientific’ aspects? Are they not supposed to concern themselves only with the frontiers of knowledge and ‘quality’ of research? If it so happens that the talk of protein malnutrition in general, and that of soyabean in particular, is in the air, if soyabean research and publications thereon are respectable, if it gets recognition and maybe promotion, if it gets easy grants and equipment from munificent foundations, if it also gets foreign fellowships and easy seminars and perhaps foreign meetings — then, why, of course they must work on soyabean. 

Those scientists who see science and its application only as an instrument for development, and close their eves to its use as an instrument of exploitation and imperialist enslavement. are either naive or do not want to see the truth. 

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