Plumpy’ Nut, based on the popular spread Nutella, is a paste made out of peanuts, powdered milk, sugar, and vegetable oil, with added vitamins and minerals. It is given primarily to severely malnourished children under the age of five (the age group most likely to die from malnutrition in famine stricken areas) who live in developing countries. High in protein and calories, appealing to children because of its sweetness, it can literally save the lives of children so malnourished that they have lost their appetites or that the ordinary foods available to them are no longer enough.
Plumpy’ Nut, invented in 1996, is a vast improvement over the milk based formulas that were previously used for this purpose. Vacuum packed and shelf stable, it will keep without refrigeration, even in hot climates. It can be eaten as is, with no need to add water. In places without access to clean water, this makes Plumpy’ Nut a life saver. Parents can feed it to their malnourished children at home, without needing to hospitalize them for feeding.
Plumpy’ Nut is also a litmus test for the meaning of patents, food aid, and the self sufficiency of developing countries. Currently, the product is embroiled in a lawsuit over its patent. The patent holder, the French company Nutriset, is being sued by two American companies, Breedlove Foods and Mama Cares Foundation, the nonprofit arm of a for profit food manufacturer and marketer.
Both organizations, which contribute heavily to famine relief efforts in developing countries, claim that the patent on Plumpy’ Nut prevents them from developing comparable products more cheaply. They also claim that the recipe is so simple anyone can make it, so it should not be patentable. They further accuse Nutriset of using the patent to limit distribution of Plumpy’ Nut for the sake of company profits.
Nutriset claims that they need the patent to keep the market from being swamped with cheap surplus foods from the US, which would prevent the receiving countries from developing the product with locally grown ingredients. The company has factories and franchises in several developing countries, where Plumpy’ Nut is made with local supplies. Their patent, they point out, is not universal.
Through Doctors Without Borders, Unicef, and the World Health Organization, Nutriset has provided Plumpy’ Nut to famine stricken areas in Darfur, Sudan, Niger, and other countries. Families in need receive the supplies free of charge. In this respect, Nutriset is living up to its claims.
However, on both sides of the lawsuit, vested interest cannot be dismissed. Nutriset is fighting to protect its patent on its product. Mama Cares and Breedlove Foods both have similar products that they wish to bring to market. Although both sides claim to have the interests of the Third World’s malnourished children at heart, the fact remains that each player in the game is protecting its own profits. Even if the recipients of food aid do not pay for it, the donors profit in two possible ways: food donation creates a long term market for their product, and, in some cases, the distributors pay.
Anti-Plumpy’ Nut sentiment has also come from a would-be beneficiary. In 2009, the Indian government stopped Unicef from distributing the product in two of India’s poorest states, areas hard hit by child malnutrition. Shreeranjan, the Joint Secretary of India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development, said that Unicef had not followed proper protocols for importing a foreign product, and that the government was unconvinced of its safety and effectiveness. He said it would be better if the malnourished children relied on locally grown food.
In Shreeranjan’s statements, perhaps we can read a bitter refusal to be dependant on charity. Despite Plumpy’ Nut having proven its worth in Africa, the Indian government turned it down basically because it was a foreign product. For India, whose history as a nation is based in shaking off foreign colonialism and paternalism, bringing in a foreign company’s product to feed children, on the grounds that their home country cannot feed them, may indeed seem insulting.
While Plumpy’ Nut is a miracle food, the implications it carries have no easy answers. If its manufacturer is to be believed, its development and distribution are being carried out with nothing more than the best interests of starving children at heart. However, fairness and dignity are at stake here, as well as monetary profits. Plumpy’ Nut is not only a lifesaving food. It embodies the difficulties and contradictions inherent in food aid.