Can Peanut Paste Save the World?

by updated 2010/11/28

mastermaq / flicker

Plumpy’nut is a product developed several years ago to help lessen starvation in poor regions of the world. It is a peanut based paste, fortified with vitamins and minerals, with sugar added to make it sweet. It is packaged in a foil packet sort of like those Capri Sun drink packets you find littering beaches and campgrounds every summer. Although certainly not a long term solution to hunger worldwide, Plumpy’nut has saved thousands of children from death and, when I first read about it a long time ago, seemed to me to be the solution to saving many of the world’s starving people. Unfortunately this has not really happened yet and I am not sure it will.

Because a nutrient fortified peanut paste is easy to manufacture and distribute, many people think the recipe should be in the Public Domain, free to make on-site in any country with need.  The truth is that the recipe and name are owned and trademarked by a French company named Nutriset.  Nutriset does not to me seem the embodiment of an evil corporation, bent solely on profit at the expense of starving children worldwide.  Safety is also a concern and a case can certainly be made that Nutriset’s product is safer than similar recipes made on site in Third World countries.

The fact that such a simple to make product, with such huge potential to save lives, is mostly controlled by one private company is disturbing to many people.  Unicef, the World’s largest distributor of Pluply’nut purchases most of its Plumpy’nut from one Nutriset factory in France. Although Nutriset has partnered to produce some Plumpy’nut locally in countries with need, this has not resulted in any cost savings. Some people believe this control has kept the cost of Plumpy’nut high enough to be unavailable to many that could be saved by having access to it.

To see more details of the Plumpy’nut debate, you can read a great article recently published in The New York Times Magazine. This is another complicated issue pitting the need for doing public good against a private company’s right to profit from a product.  There are concerns, but Nutriset is certainly not in the same league as huge corporate chemical and agriculture businesses that are working non-stop to corner the world’s market on food production.  Still, I find myself thinking that peanut paste is a product whose ability to save millions of people instead of just thousands is being delayed by a corporate bureaucracy intent on creating the most profit for its owners.  I hope my concern is misplaced.

Will Sig

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