Plumpy’nut is pretty much what it sounds like. It is a very high calorie paste based on peanuts designed to encourage rapid weight gain. It is used for starving children and is very effective. A child can move from a state of desperate malnutrition to nearly healthy on a diet of this paste and its use in famine relief is obvious. It has been credited with saving countless lives already.
However alarm bells might have sounded when you saw the trade name. Why does a simple substance, basically peanut butter with additions, have a brand name? There is indeed controversy surrounding the production of Plumpy’nut. The substance is patented and there is money being made.
This was not at all what the inventor, Andre Briend, a paediatric nutritionist, wanted. The aim was an easy substance to make that would provide very effective treatment of malnutrition. An aggressively protected patent wasn’t exactly the idea.
However despite the ethical debate there is no doubt that Plumpy’nut is helping in famine relief situations. The high concentration of fat, protein, sugar and vitamins is effective in small quantities, which is what starving children need. They cannot eat large amounts of food at a time, however badly their bodies need this.
Plumpy’nut is easily transported to famine situations and doesn’t spoil. It also does not need water or other ingredients to prepare, making it ideal for emergency situations. Its first use in the Sudan, when it was given to 30,000 children, apparently halved malnutrition rates. Since then it has been given to over a quarter of a million children, mainly in Africa, and its effectiveness in treating malnutrition is indisputable.
The manufacturers, Nutriset, are still determinedly protecting their patent on the substance, battling any attempts to produce similar products. These actions could be costing lives and you come back to the ethical question of whether any company should have the patent rights on a simple, famine relief product. The equivalent of Plumpy’nut can be made, as has been demonstrated, with simple ingredients and a blender. There is a demand from aid agencies for cheaper versions.
Nutriset have defended their position by saying they are protecting local partners in Africa from producers in the United States. This particular issue is likely to continue for a long time, with Nutriset defending their monopoly against continuous challenges from would be competitors and from aid charities. In some places the patent is simply being ignored in order to provide famine relief.
It is indisputable that Plumpy’nut is an incredible food. It has made a huge difference in relieving malnutrition and helped to save thousands of lives. It is to be hoped that the commercial angle is settled in such a way so the most children possible benefit from an effective treatment for malnutrition.