Sri Lanka: Soya Pioneer in the Third World (1726, 1979-1980s)
(Sri Lanka and the Soybean Development Program)


by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi

A Chapter from the Unpublished Manuscript, History of Soybeans and
Soyfoods, 1100 B.C. to the 1980s

ęCopyright 2004 Soyinfo Center, Lafayette, California

For updated and greatly expanded free information on this subject, on our website go to "Historical Bibliographies and Sourcebooks on Soy," then click on "South Asia / Indian Subcontinent." A lengthy book will appear in PDF format. It is searchable using Adobe Acrobat or AdobeReader.

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Beginning in the late 1960s many Third World countries, which had not traditionally used soyfoods, began to take a serious interest in them. It seems to us that Sri Lanka led the way in quickly, effectively, and creatively inaugurating a program of soybean production and introducing a variety of tasty soyfoods into the national diet. Many Third World countries took the simple yet rather unimaginative and often monotonous approach of using soyfoods primarily in the form of soy flour, cereal soy blends (such as CSM or WSB), or textured soy protein, disguised in traditional staples (such as breads, tortillas, or ground meats) to improve their nutritional value and (with meats) to lower their cost. Sri Lanka, however, was the first developing country to grasp the full potential of virtually all of the traditional and modern low-technology soyfoods and use them as foods in their own right, to be enjoyed, as well as to improve the health and well-being of the people.

The story of the introduction of soybeans and soyfoods to Sri Lanka during the 1970s and 1980s has many lessons to offer. It demonstrates the need for and effectiveness of an integrated program, in which soybean production, marketing, and utilization as food are carefully balanced. It is an example of unusual cooperation between international and local organizations, and between local organizations and the people of Sri Lanka. It is a story of people discovering a new yet ancient food, making it their own, and sharing their discovery with other people--and in this way it parallels the soyfoods movement in North America. It is a case study in innovation and balanced judgment, which are a real tribute to the people and the government of this peaceful island. And finally it is the story of the soybean and soyfoods coming full circle, back to Asia, with the help of a century of experience gained in America. The Sri Lanka Soybean Development may well serve as a valuable model for introducing soybeans and soyfoods to other Third World countries.

Demographic Background. The original inhabitants of Sri Lanka, the Veddahs, were subdued by Aryans from northern India in about 543 BC. Their descendants, the Buddhist Sinhalese, still form most of the population. These Aryans created an impressive system of irrigated agriculture in the northern half of the island (the Dry Zone), then in the late 1100s, suddenly abandoned their capital at Anuradhapura and moved to the south (the Wet Zone). Dravidian-speaking Hindu Tamils from southern India moved in to fill the vacuum in the north. There was periodic conflict and warfare between the two groups.

Colonialism began when the Portuguese invaded Ceylon in 1501-1505. They began slaughtering and terrorizing the Sinhalese, while occupying parts of the island. The Dutch arrived in 1658, overthrew the Portuguese, and controlled the island until they were conquered by the British in 1796. The British brought in many new Tamils to work their tea plantations (these "Indian Tamils" were even more unpopular with the Sinhalese than the "Ceylon Tamils") and set off a dramatic upswing in population, which grew from 2.25 million in 1850 to 7.5 million in 1950, reaching 15.6 million by mid-1983, giving a very high population density of 582 people per square mile. Despite the heavy-handed attempts of Christian missionaries to convert the Sinhalese, Buddhism continued to thrive. Until the end of World War II the British ran Ceylon as a colonial plantation society, whose economy was almost completely reliant on exports of tea, rubber, and coconut. Much of the nation's food was imported.

In 1948 Ceylon became an independent member of the British Commonwealth. On 22 May 1972 Ceylon became the Republic of Sri Lanka.

As of 1981 census, the main ethnic groups are Sinhalese 74.0%, Ceylon Tamils 12.6%, Indian Tamils 5.6%, Ceylon Muslims 7.1%, and Other 0.5%. Sinhalese is the official language but English is widely spoken. The main religious groupings are Buddhists 69.3%, Hindus 15.5%, Muslims 7.6%, Roman Catholics 6.8%, and other Christians 0.7%. Starting in the early 1980s there was extensive conflict when the 3 million Hindu Tamils in the north demanded a separate state.

Early History of Soybeans in Sri Lanka. The earliest known reference to soy in Sri Lanka had to do with soy sauce. Early shipping records from The Hague, Netherlands, show that during the Dutch occupation shoyu (Japanese-style soy sauce) was shipped from Japan to Sri Lanka throughout the period 1670-1699.

On 30 June 1676 J. van Hoorn, in an order for provisions to the Deshima Factory (Nagasaki, Kyushu island, southern Japan) requested specifically for Ceylon: 12 kegs of soy [sauce] - plus 20 kegs of good sake.

The first reference to soybeans came later, although they have apparently been grown on a small scale in Ceylon/Sri Lanka for a long time. In 1717 the Dutch botanist Paul Hermann published his Musaeum Zeylanicum, in which he described and illustrated soybeans grown in Ceylon. These soybeans may have been introduced by Dutch traders as early as the mid-1600s at the time of the Dutch occupation (from 1658 to 1796), when cultural practices were introduced from the Dutch East Indies (today's Indonesia).

The only part of Sri Lanka where soybeans have been grown since relatively ancient times (no one knows when) is Maturata. Here a small-seeded, high-protein soybean with a yellow to yellowish-green seed coat has long been planted on the ridges of the terraced rice paddies and served locally in various popular dishes; sweet snack foods (rasa kevili) such as aggala (sweet coconut balls), dhal curries, and roasted soy coffee. The tender leaves are cooked with grated coconut and spices to make melluns.

In 1885 the French soy pioneer Paillieux noted (without citing his source) that soybeans were called Bhatwan in Sinhalese. In 1894 the Britisher Henry Trimen, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Ceylon, in his Hand-Book to the Flora of Ceylon, gave a detailed description of the soybean as Glycine javanica (synonym Soya Wightii), noting that it "Appears to be sometimes cultivated as a pulse." He considered it an indigenous plant.

Many of the first articles about soybeans and soyfoods published in Sri Lanka appeared in The Tropical Agriculturalist, the Journal of the Ceylon Agricultural Society. The Society was founded in 1881 and the Journal started publication the same year. The first article to mention soybeans, titled "New and old tropical products," appeared on 1 June 1881 (p. 2, 71). Six articles that mentioned soybeans had appeared in this periodical before 1900.

In 1936, in a review of the classic book Soya Bean written by the Britisher Kale in India, The Ceylon Observer concluded by asking: "Will the soya bean be introduced in Ceylon as an article of diet in the near future." The answer turned out to be yes. In 1937 C.W.D. Alwines at St. Patrick's College in Jaffna studied soyfoods as part of experiments concerning balanced diets. Soybeans were roasted for use like coffee, and whole soy flour (ground in a flour mill) was used to make bread, buns, tarts, and cake, as well as rotti, vadai, and other indigenous dishes. Plans were announced to make soymilk and tofu. Also in 1937 Malcolm Park (Acting Deputy Director of Agriculture) and Dr. M. Fernando (a plant pathologist), in "Preliminary Experiments on Soya Inoculation in Ceylon," noted an "awakening public interest" in soya. They reported that "The possibility of its cultivation in Ceylon has been considered for many years and from time to time experimental plots have been planted with soya. The results of these trials have, on the whole, been disappointing..." In 1938 Haigh discussed the excellent nutritional value of soybeans and soy sprouts, and in 1939 described culture trials with 32 varieties in Ceylon, and the effects of inoculation.

Prior to World War II, Mr. Walter Moragoda, Chief Propaganda Officer in the Department of Agriculture, encouraged the growing of soybeans, but the crop was adopted only in village home gardens (Senannayake 1982). After the war, in 1947, a new attempt at introduction was made, but because the soybean was unable to compete with other pulses, in part due to the low yields caused by weak strains of rhizobium inoculum, little attention was given to it.

Meals for Millions in Sri Lanka. The Meals for Millions Foundation was founded in California in 1946 to popularize a low-cost, highly nutritious soy-based protein supplement or cereal-soy blend called Multi-Purpose Food (MPF) to low-income areas (see Chapter 71) In July 1955 the Foundation's Executive Director, Miss Florence Rose, visited Sri Lanka briefly and founded the Meals for Millions Committee under the aegis of the Ceylon Red Cross. The first meeting was organized by Mr. K. Somasundaram, former director of the Ceylon Red Cross Society, and Dr. J.H.F. Jayasuriya. After her return to the USA, Rose began shipping MPF to key contacts in Sri Lanka (Jayasena 1964).

In 1957 the most comprehensive study of Sri Lanka's food problems and nutritional needs was published in a joint FAO-WHO report, written by Clements and Bocobo. It showed serious protein and calorie deficiencies in the population. This report created a new awareness of the need for low-cost sources of protein and calories, of the type that Meals for Millions was advocating.

In the late 1950s a young man named Hewage Jayasena was appointed to the office of Joint Secretary of the National Development Enquiry Committee of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress. He also came to serve as the Secretary of the Health Enquiry Committee, which consisted of volunteer physicians. In this capacity, in about 1958-59, he first heard of and took a strong interest in the Meals for Millions concept and MPF. During the early 1960s he began active correspondence with MFM in America to popularize their ideas in Sri Lanka. The MFM ideas were very appealing to Buddhists who believe that one should not kill animals for food or other purposes. (When was Jayasena's "A National Health Plan for Ceylon" published?? Did it mention MPF?? What sort of exploratory interest did Lever Bros. show in the early 1960s??

In the early 1960s FAO started a Freedom From Hunger campaign in Sri Lanka. It's Bulletin began to challenge the orthodox teachings of Western nutritionists that animal proteins were necessary for proper nutrition. A lengthy article published in September 1963 cited the research of Dr. Henry Borsook and the Meals for Millions Foundation, which showed that one need not consume any animal proteins to be healthy. Using information supplied by Jayasena, it then went on to discuss MPF, its growing worldwide popularity (especially in India), and the possibilities of producing MPF in Sri Lanka using local grains and legumes. In 1962-64 Jayasena corresponded with Mr. Fred H. Hafner of General Mills in Minneapolis, enquiring about their investing in a MFM plant in Sri Lanka. However since in 1962 the Sri Lankan government had expropriated British and US oil companies, the climate was not considered favorable for investment. But General Mills showed interest in exporting their MPF to Sri Lanka or serving as technical advisors on a plant; Hafner advised Jayasena as to how he might proceed to make contacts.

In September 1964 Florence Rose visited Sri Lanka again, injecting new enthusiasm for her program. At a meeting sponsored by the Junior Chamber of Commerce of Colombo, Ms. Rose reported that since 1955 the MFM Foundation in the USA had gifted to Sri Lanka approximately 40,000 lb of American-style MPF, which uses soybean meal as its protein source. This food was distributed by the Government of Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka Red Cross Meals for Millions Committee, and other voluntary agencies. She also drew special attention to the developments in India, Brazil, the Philippines, and Japan where local MPFs were being produced using indigenous raw materials (such as oilseed presscakes) not previously used as food. At this meeting the Sri Lanka Meals for Millions Council was established. Prof. C.C. de Silva was elected president and Jayasena was elected secretary. (What did the Council do??) Shortly after?? this meeting Jayasena wrote and published a 2-page mimeographed brochure titled "Meals for Millions and Multi-Purpose Food." (When??) In 196?? the Council was reorganized as the MFM Foundation, with the same officers, still working as volunteers. (What did it do??) (Jayasena 1964).

In 1967 soybean varietal and agronomic trials were started on a limited scale in the country's dry zone at the Maha Illupallama Agricultural Research Station under the direction of Dr. G.W.E. (Walter) Fernando. This work, which led to the successful development of varieties suitable for cultivation in the dry zone of Sri Lanka, gave great impetus to the growing interest in soybeans and soyfoods in Sri Lanka.

In 1971 Jayasena took a 5-month program in soyfoods preparation at the MFM training school in Santa Monica, California. In April 1972, after his return to Sri Lanka, he submitted a detailed proposal for establishing a mixing plant to produce a MPF-type weaning food consisting of 36% soybean meal, 53% rice flour, and 10% nonfat dry milk, plus vitamins and minerals. The soybean meal and rice flour would be locally produced. Another?? proposal called for using imported soy grits. But the time was not yet ripe and these proposals did not find support. Then in 1972?? (when??) the Sri Lanka MFM Foundation held the Poshana Exhibition (what was it??) which gave considerable impetus to subsequent soybean developments. In 1973 Sri Lanka's MFM Foundation published a booklet describing soybean farming techniques, expected yields, nutritional value, and local recipes (Who has a copy??)

These various pioneering activities introduced soybeans and soy protein foods to many Sri Lankans in high places who were previously unaware of their many benefits, began imports of such foods, and got people thinking as to how they could make these ideas their own. As such they set the stage for and strongly influenced the shape of the events that would occur during the next two decades, when the Government of Sri Lanka, INTSOY, the United Nations, and CARE were the major moving forces.

Establishment of Sri Lanka Soybean Development Program. A 1969-70 socio-economic survey revealed that 50% of the population was not getting enough food energy (calories) and about 40% lacked sufficient protein. Moreover, roughly 42% of the country's preschool children had second or third degree malnutrition, and the situation was getting worse. It was increasingly realized and argued (Ref??) that soybeans could intervene as an excellent, low-cost source of calories and high-quality protein. Increasingly large amounts of precious foreign exchange were being used to import wheat ($60 million in 1973), milk ($9 million; nearly two-thirds of the milk sold by the National Milk Board was imported), and pulses. Locally grown soybeans could be used to make soy flour to replace and fortify wheat flour. This would both save the country large amounts of foreign exchange and greatly improve the nutritional value (and storage life) of bread and other baked goods. These benefits could be obtained at low cost and acceptability of the new breads was not likely to be a problem. Whole soybeans could partially replace less nutritious imported pulses. Soymilk could extend or replace more expensive, imported cow's milk, and could be used in place of coconut milk in cooking, allowing greater exports of coconuts. Growing soybeans and producing soyfoods would also increase employment opportunities. Eventually soybean meal might be used in livestock feeds, especially poultry rations, freeing more copra (dried coconut meat used as a source of oil) for export. There seemed to be many advantages to having a soybeans and soyfoods industry in Sri Lanka.

During the early 1970s three men were instrumental in laying the foundations for the Sri Lanka Soybean Development Program, and for getting it going until it could fly on its own. Dr. Fernando, who had done key variety trails in the late 1960s, was chosen in 1973 to be Sri Lanka's first soybean coordinator, and subsequently the country's Deputy Director for Research. William G. Golden, who was head of the IRRI/Sri Lanka Ford Foundation Rice Project for 5 years saw the soybean's great potential, and was very influential and helpful in getting the soybean program started. He introduced new high-yielding soybeans varieties and a remarkably effective new rhizobium inoculum, and he first established communications between Sri Lanka and INTSOY (the International Soybean Program, headquartered at the University of Illinois). Dr. Leslie Herath (pronounced HAIR-uth), then Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, dealing with international programs, made very strong, persistent appeals to the United Nations Development (UNDP) and INTSOY, which ultimately convinced them to take an active role in the project.

During the 1965-1972 period a number of University of Illinois personnel, especially those associated with the soybean program in India, were invited to visit Sri Lanka. A major step was taken in 1972 when the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands invited Dr. C.N. Hittle, then a soybean agronomist with the University of Illinois soybean program in India, to visit Sri Lanka from October 2-22. He submitted a 22-page report entitled "Potentialities of Soybean Production in Sri Lanka (Ref??)," concluding that prospects looked promising. Starting in early 1973 the Sri Lanka program was considerably expanded. The Government of Sri Lanka assigned responsibility for the development and implementation of the Sri Lanka Soybean Development Program to the Department of Agriculture within the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands. In January 1973 a soybean production research committee was formed and major emphasis was placed on varietal testing and seed multiplication. Soybean production research was increased at the Central Agricultural Research Institute (CARI) and three other research stations. The very encouraging results of trials in the agro-ecological Dry Zone and Intermediate Zone suggested that soybeans would do well in these areas. In addition a home economist from FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations) developed and demonstrated home recipes for making and serving soyfoods.

With this commendable start made by the Government of Sri Lanka, the stage had been reached where outside assistance could be of real benefit. In March 1973 the Government requested that FAO send a team to Sri Lanka to formulate a project for "Soybean Development" to be assisted by UNDP and to prepare a first draft of the project document. The team of two FAO officers, Mr. M. Jalil and Dr. H.A. Al-Jibouri, arrived in Sri Lanka in late April and submitted an excellent 17-page first draft project document; it suggested that the first phase of the project last 3 years. In September 1973 the Government of Sri Lanka submitted, for consideration of UNDP support, a project proposal on soybean development based on the recommendations of the two FAO officers. After critical review of the proposal, UNDP headquarters indicated that several aspects of the project needed further clarification. Thus a team composed of Dr. C.N. Hittle and Dr. M.C. Saxena were appointed to visit Sri Lanka in late November/early December 1973. In their 113-page "Report of a UNDP Mission to Review a Request from the Government of Sri Lanka for Assistance to a Project Entitled Soybean Development (Ref??)," they made recommendations for revising the project proposal. Discussions were then held between UNDP/FAO and the University of Illinois, culminating in the signing of a contract in February 1975 calling for INTSOY assistance to the Government of Sri Lanka and the implementation of the Sri Lanka Soybean Development Program. UNDP funding was set at roughly $680,000 and Phase I of the project, which began on 1 March 1975, was scheduled to run for 2 1/2 years, until 1 September 1977. Sri Lanka's counterpart contribution of professional and non-professional staff, equipment, and other services would be the equivalent of Rs. 4,840,880 ($397,000) spread over 2 1/2 years. Under this contract, INTSOY provided skilled manpower, including Dr. Hittle in agronomy, Prof. Alvin I. Nelson and Dr. James M. Spata in food processing and utilization, Dr. Sheldon W. Williams in economics and marketing, plus expert consultants in soybean breeding, insect control, weed control, soil and water management, agricultural machinery, plant pathology, and rhizobium microbiology. In October 1974 Dr. H.M.E. (Eddie) Herath, Deputy Director of Agricultural Development in Sri Lanka's Department of Agriculture, stationed at the Central Agricultural Research Institute (CARI), was named Soybean Program Director and Coordinator on the Sri Lankan side. He set to work assembling a Sri Lankan staff composed of 32 (later 42) professionals, supported by 25 technical personnel; many of these people, however, worked only part time. Dr. Carl N. Hittle was the INTSOY project leader and agronomist.

The program was designed to strengthen the Government of Sri Lanka's institutional competence to attain five long-term goals over the 7-10 year life of the project:

1. To increase the production of soybeans in Sri Lanka on a sustained and permanent basis.

2. To increase the supply of high-quality edible protein and oil for home consumption and to meet the protein needs of the vulnerable section of the population.

3. To satisfy the domestic needs for protein rich feed for cattle and poultry and to minimize feed imports.

4. To increase the country's exports, generate greater employment opportunity in rural areas, and increase the per capita income of small farmers.

5. To reduce the country's imports of food products and to provide an indigenous protein and oil crop to substitute for some of the products which could no longer come into the country because of import restrictions.

Seven intermediate objectives were also established. In actuality, the government's main interest in soybeans was as a source of food to improve the diets of its people. A "Food First" policy was established from the outset; the soybeans would go directly into human diets rather than being used to feed livestock (which only the rich could afford) or to export.

The program's basic strategy was based on the integrated, interdisciplinary, multifaceted approach already being used by INTSOY in India, whereby the soybean production, marketing, and food utilization components were all carefully coordinated and developed together. Farmers, obviously, would not be willing to grow soybeans if there were no market for them. The first phase of the program would be to find soybean varieties specifically suited to Sri Lanka, to develop a package of cultural practices to help the soybean do well within the country's cropping system, and to develop an extension program to teach the new techniques to farmers. The second phase would be utilization, to develop a Soyabean Foods Research Center, to do research and training in the production of soyfoods on three levels: home, village, and commercial. The third phase would be marketing, developing ways of introducing soyfoods via government, commercial, home, and village programs. One of the first uses planned for soy flour produced from locally grown soybeans was in Thriposha (pronounced truh-POE-shuh), a corn-and-soy-based weaning food introduced into Sri Lanka in 1973, and discussed in detail below. Finally a newsletter was planned by CARE as a vehicle of communication and education among the expanding network of people and institutions interested in soybeans and soyfoods. It was stressed that links would be developed with as many other potentially interested organizations as possible. Lever Bros. (Ceylon) Ltd., for example, was interested in producing soymilk and using soy oil in margarine. The National Milk Board hoped to make 100,000 pints of soymilk a day to mix with cow's milk. The State Flour Milling Corporation had expressed interest in fortifying their bread with soy flour.

Basic to the success of the entire program were the unique cultural, economic, and political systems of Sri Lanka, and the rather remarkable and enlightened attitudes of the government, private industry, and the people. The limited use of meat, because of its high cost and because of the country's Buddhist and Hindu spiritual influences, facilitated the introduction of alternative protein sources. The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka was well known as a developing country which had an unusually high general standard of living and relatively small gap between the rich and the poor, even though it had a relatively low Gross National Product. This was, in part, due to a just and orderly economic and political system, a vibrant democracy, and an active religious tradition in which people cared for one another and understood that the good of each cannot be separated from the good of all. The government, too, had long been known, for its active concern for the health and welfare of its people. There was a close and mutually beneficial cooperation between the government, private industry, and the people, which could hardly be imagined in most Western countries. And at almost every possible point, the government lent its dignity and weight to the process of introducing soyfoods, providing funding, speakers, attending high dignitaries, etc. Moreover there seemed to be widespread recognition of the benefits of appropriate technology and the joys of working for the benefit of all. Women played the key role in the soyfoods instruction and outreach/extension work. One of the key women who worked to introduce tofu, for example, Mrs. Gai Kim, was the wife of the resident representative of the United Nations Development Program mission in Sri Lanka. Dr. Ernest Abeyratne, Director of Agriculture from 1973-1977, gave support and enthusiasm which helped the program tremendously.

The Program officially started on 1 March 1975. In July 1976 Dr. Hittle took up residence in Kandy and devoted full time to the dual assignment of INTSOY Project Leader and Senior Agronomist. During the following years he submitted to FAO periodic detailed reports on the program; a limited number of copies are available from INTSOY at the University of Illinois.

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