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Schaller farmer in India: soy can be answer to malnutrition

Schaller farmer in India: soy can be answer to malnutrition
Thursday, September 4, 2014

By DANA LARSEN Pilot-Tribune Editor

When Laura Foell and her husband came back to northwest Iowa in the 1980s to farm, they pictured a quiet country lifestyle.

That was more than 25 different countries ago. The Schaller woman became a farmer-leader with the United Soybean Board and one of four members representing Iowa on the national soybean Checkoff Board, traveling the world to promote U.S. soy producers and soy products.

Foell recently returned from India, where she huddled with soybean traders, leaders of industries that use soy, and representatives of U.S. Departments of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service.

Last week, she helped to host four parliamentarians from India who came to northwest Iowa to learn more about the farm industry here.

Her experience in the country was eye-opening. "It was very disturbing to see. There is a 30-40 percent malnutrition rate in India, and a high infant mortality rate. People live on less than $2 a day - a lot of them less than 50 cents a day. The people there get very little protein in their diet."

The lifestyles she sees in such countries are in stark contrast to the life she knows in northwest Iowa. "We in the U.S. complain so much about such little things. And then you see real poverty, where people have no access to nutritious food for their families, and you know how fortunate we really are," she says.

Her task is an economic one - to increase soybean export markets for the United States crop grown on family farms like her own. But as she travels, she finds that it isn't primarily profits on her mind.

"As farmers we may tend not to think too much about what becomes of the crop we grow, once it is off our farms and into the local elevator. My experiences traveling with the Soybean Board has completely changed my attitude. What is important is that people are going hungry in the world and we can do something about it," she says. "As farmers, we have a responsibility that goes beyond the elevator."

In India in particular, she says that soy flour and soy milk could enrich people's diet and help offset hunger and malnutrition-related health problems - if she and others working to promote U.S. exports can get past foreign government and social hurdles to get the food staple to the people.

The U.S. soybean industry has been working with India for more than 15 years in hopes of enabling imports of U.S. soy. The country does grow soybeans, but its current ag system can't meet the needs of an exploding population that is on pace to make the country the world's most populous by 2030, surpassing China.

"They are getting about 40 percent of what we get out of each acre of field," Foell said. "They see seed germination at about 30 percent, while we have 90."

Over half of the soybeans grown in the United States are already exported, Foell says, and with a bumper crop in the field, the country is poised to be able to do more. "A third of our exports go to China, but we really don't want to put all of our eggs in that one basket," she said.

Foell hopes to help convince the government of India that the quality of U.S. soy products make it the answer to its needs.

Currently India's administration does not want to allow genetically-modified crops into the country, though it grows GM cotton itself. "In my opinion, this is a point where India is struggling to decide whether to go with tradition or science," she said. "the average farm in India is half an acre, with a lot of hand labor. The concern is that if they go with science, if they combine land and become more mechanized, they will displace farm workers at a time when population is growing so fast that the country needs to create a half million new jobs every year."

Her travels have helped her to better understand the challenges and issues people face in various countries. "You don't know until you actually see it for yourself. You can read it in books or see it on TV, but until you are actually there, you really don't know."

She said her experiences in eight years on the soybean board have broadened her views considerable. She will serve one more year.

"When we came back to farm, I had never been out of the country. In 2008, the first trip I was sent on was to Europe to meet with government officials about Roundup-Ready Soybeans." (A genetically engineered variety resistant to the glyphosate Roundup produced by Monsanto. This allowed the herbicide to be applied to kill weeds without killing the soybean plants.)

"It was only after that when they told me, "We just took you to the four hardest countries to crack in the world,'" Foell said.

A frustrating part of the job has been dealing with foreign government leaders who don't seem to care about feeding the hungry. She has been told more than once by these officials that if American farms have more food than her own countries need, they should quit "overproducing."

Some think her globetrotting is "vacation," she laughs. "I see the inside of a lot of plain government offices and the inside of a hotel room. I drove by the Eiffel Tower once, from a distance."

While soybean promotion is all about marketing, she says she has come to believe that investment in education and humanitarianism is equally important for the farm industry.

After missions in more than 25 countries, on every continent except Antarctica and Australia, she said she remains very optimistic.

"I believe it is U.S. agriculture that is going to play a key role in feeding the world, that is going to find the technology to get us closer to a sustainability economically, environmentally and socially," she says. "I take this very seriously