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The "Plumpy Nut" moral conundrum

"Plumpy nut" is a bit of a wonder invention. It's a stew of ground up peanut glop, shed loads more fat, more fat on top of that, plus a huge dose of sugar and essential vitamins. It comes in sterile pouches that last for *two years*, it can be warmed up and Plumpy Porridge created, or, what is easiest and safest, it can be sucked straight from the pouch. It contains in a single pouch half the nutrition needed for a small child per day. it is, basically, amazing, life saving stuff.

The company that makes it  advertises local opportunities to create factories in developing world economies to create plumpy nut. According to Wikipedia, the idea then is to use locally grown peanuts and milk powder, but purchase the vitamin / nutrient slop from Nutriset, the company that makes it. So each factory is basically a franchise. Nutriset keep a careful rein over their invention.

When I first heard of Plumpy Nut, and I can remember how long ago this was - around 1998, my conspiracy nose sniffed. Why was this only using peanuts, when there is well documented evidence of life threatening allergic reaction to peanuts? Why not use other nuts such as hazelnuts or cashews? Was this an American company, palming off the surplus peanuts from the US, where sales might proportionally be going down, due to fear of allergies? I must be told! I mailed them with questions... they never replied.

Now, it transpires that almost the polar opposite is true. A BBC article about Plumpy Nut extolling its virtues also points out that an American firm is screaming blue murder given that Nutriset, a french company, have a strong-arm tendency to send cease and desist letters to anyone who tries to make a similar product to the aforementioned lifesaver. Various aid agencies have complained about this publicly. Mike Mellace from the US based "Mama Cares Foundation", a not-for-profit wants the patent on Plumpy Nut to be opened up so anyone can make it, and therefore presumably drive the price right down.  Remi Vallet from Nutriset argues strongly that their aim is to promote industry and local farming in third world countries - to support locally grown solutions and to feed in to these local economies. Opening up the patent would destroy these fledgling economies, the market would be dominated by cheaper, mass produced American peanuts and therefore by US companies. In short, prolonging the need to aid, where one of Nutriset's goals is "nutritional autonomy".

One doesn't have to have a degree in economics to understand that small farms producing a smaller amount of peanuts in a fledgling business will by necessity produce peanuts and milk at a higher cost than those employing mass farming techniques in the US. Nutriset shrugs and says hey, we've got spare capacity, we can make as much as is needed. UNICEF and others must be thinking well that's fine but it eats up our entire budget. We *need* to buy this stuff, it's a proven lifesaver and it's amazing, but we also need to buy it cheaper, so we can buy more. Can the normal rules of economics apply when people are starving, or there are major earthquakes destroying the entirety of local infrastructure such as in (already poverty stricken) Haiti?

It's not an easy moral question. The argument suggesting that the US would dominate the market is entirely valid. Holding large scale aid agencies to ransom by having a fixed price and entirely controlling the product via franchises is not. Nutriset seems to be a 'for-profit' company. I think Nutriset's argument would be more compelling if they were to spin off Plumpy Nut under a not-for-profit scheme, and plow all excess revenues in to improving / enlarging farms / the supply chain, holding such franchises in a trust, as opposed to owning them. Perhaps even making the Plumpy Nut operation some kind of 'Partnership' including all local supplier franchisees on an equal footing.

Put bluntly, to hold the price artificially high by limiting access to the product is unacceptable. without some price reduction and increase in investment in efficiency  etc, Nutriset's moral argument begins to waste away. the thought of the market being dominated by peanuts from the US market, destroying this nascent local farming enterprise is repellent, but is it more repellent than a quantifiable number of people not receiving safe nutritional aid when the budgets run dry through cost?