Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 7, 2010

Plumpy’nut and the politics of food

Filed under: health and fitness,nicaragua — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine section has a fascinating article titled The Peanut Solution that is focused on a food product called Plumpy’nut that is supposed to be a savior for children suffering from malnutrition in very poor third world countries. Basically, it is a mixture of peanut and other high calorie food additives that has a dramatic effect:

One doctor who decided to take a risk was Mark Manary, a pediatrician and professor, who was working at a hospital in Malawi. His malnutrition ward was crammed full of dozens of children lying on mats. “It was really an incredible burden,” Manary recalled. “These kids are deathly ill, you’re doing whatever you can for them, and you think you’re on the right track, and then you come in the next morning and four of them have died.” Manary emptied out the ward, sending his patients home with Plumpy’nut. Many malnutrition experts were horrified. “It seemed dangerous to them, and it made them afraid,” said Manary, who recalled that one eminent figure stood up at a conference and said, “You’re killing children.” In fact, when the results were analyzed, it was found that 95 percent of the subjects who received Plumpy’nut at home made a full recovery, a rate far better than that achieved with inpatient treatment.

The Malawi test emboldened Doctors Without Borders, which recognized that treating children outside clinical settings would allow a vastly scaled-up response to humanitarian emergencies. In 2005, it distributed Plumpy’nut to 60,000 children with severe acute malnutrition during a famine in Niger. Ninety percent completely recovered, and only 3 percent died. Within two years, the United Nations endorsed home care with Plumpy’nut as the preferred treatment for severe acute malnutrition. “This is an enormous breakthrough,” said Werner Schultink, chief of nutrition for Unicef. “It has created the opportunity to reach many more children with relatively limited resources.” Nonetheless, Schultink estimates that the product reaches only 10 to 15 percent of those who need it, because of logistical and budgetary constraints.

Plumpy’nut was invented by a French physician named André Briend who got the idea for the food product after opening a jar of Nutella, a hazel nut spread, one morning. Once he had put the finishing touches on it, he approached Nutriset, a French manufacturer, with a proposal to mass produce it. Briend and Michael Lescanne, the founder of Nutriset, own the patent but have licensed it almost exclusively to poorer countries, all in Africa. Attempts to get a license in more developed countries have been turned down, thus raising concerns that Nutriset is using its humanitarian reputation to protect the bottom line of a highly profitable business ($66 million in 2009). America’s sole licensee for Plumpy’nut, a 38 year old Rhode Island woman named Navyn Salem, defended the tight control:

“What we don’t want,” Salem told me, “is for General Mills to take over and put our Ethiopian producer out of business.” Opponents of the patent, however, say that Nutriset is just trying to avoid competition that would cut into its bottom line. Recently, a handful of companies have set up shop in countries where, because of the vagaries of various treaties, the Plumpy’nut patent is not in force. In the United States, two would-be competitors have taken a more confrontational route. They filed a lawsuit with the federal district court in Washington, D.C., seeking to have the patent invalidated.

Some American businesses challenging the Nutriset monopoly also appear to be mixing equal amounts of philanthropy and mammon:

The plaintiffs are a Texas-based manufacturer called Breedlove Foods and the Mama Cares Foundation, the charitable arm of a snack-food manufacturer based in Carlsbad, Calif. Both are small nonprofit organizations with strong ties to Christian aid organizations. But Nutriset’s defenders suspect that larger corporate interests are lurking in the background. In the French press, the patent dispute has been portrayed as a case of a plucky Gallic company besieged, as Le Monde put it, by “ ‘légions’ Américaines.”

In fact, there is a not-so-hidden instigator behind the case: the American peanut lobby. A few years ago, a Unicef official gave a presentation to an industry trade group, forecasting dramatically increasing demand for peanut pastes. That got the growers excited. They looked at Nutriset’s patent and came to the conclusion that, as a technical matter, Plumpy’nut was really nothing more than fortified peanut butter. “People have been making this stuff for centuries,” Jeff Johnson, a board member of the Peanut Institute, said. “It’s nothing new.” Johnson is the president of Birdsong Peanuts, one of the country’s largest shelling operations. Through a friend, he heard about Breedlove Foods, which was based in Lubbock, close to one of his processing plants. Johnson met with the company and proposed a challenge to Nutriset.

“It’s a cotton-pickin’ shame that they decided to take the stance that they have with the intellectual-property issue,” said David Fish, Breedlove’s chief executive, whose lawsuit contends that the patent is hurting starving children. But even some Nutriset critics have questioned the motives behind the lawsuit, pointing out that America has a long and controversial history of dumping its agricultural surpluses on poor countries through food aid. “If you want to develop countries out of third-world status,” Fish replies, “they’ve got to come out and compete on the open market.”

Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs, a fairly long-time advocate of policies that favor the poor in developing countries (after an earlier experience in making such people poor through “shock therapy” programs), approached the Plumpy’nut controversy from an entirely different angle in this morning’s Huffington Post. While hailing an innovation that could save children’s lives, he thought that something more was needed:

It is critical, however, that we not confuse the many types of hunger and malnutrition (poor nutrition) around the world. Plumpy’Nut is not a miracle cure for global hunger or for global malnutrition. Plumpy’Nut addresses only one kind of hunger — acute episodes of extreme food deprivation or illness, the kind mainly associated with famines and conflicts. Plumpy’Nut is not designed for the other major kind of hunger, notably chronic hunger due to long-term poor diets. Nor is it designed to fight long-term malnutrition that is due to various kinds of chronic micronutrient deficiencies, such as iron, zinc and vitamin-A deficiencies.

The chronic kind of hunger is by far the most prevalent kind of hunger in the world, though it is more hidden and less recognized by the American public. As part of the UN Millennium Project, which one of us (Jeffrey Sachs) directed on behalf of then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the Hunger Task Force found that chronic undernourishment accounts for more than 90 percent of global hunger, while acute undernourishment (starvation) addressed by Plumpy’Nut accounts for less than 10 percent. Of course, the acute episodes are far more widely known to the US public because those are the ones seen on TV in the context of wars, droughts, and other upheavals.

Additionally, Sachs looks at the problem of hunger from the angle of political economy, something that is ignored entirely in the NY Times article:

Our recommended solutions therefore include the following. In cases of acute malnutrition, UNICEF and other agencies should promote locally produced, quality-controlled, ready-to-use fortified foods and should resist claims of patent protection that impede local production or low-cost imports, as needed. In cases of chronic undernourishment, rich and poor governments in partnership should promote improved agriculture and dietary diversity.

Unfortunately, the goal of “improved agriculture” is not something that rich countries would shoot for if it entails a clash with the export-agriculture oriented agrarian gentry that have been in cahoots with American imperialism for the past century at least.

That was something that I was reminded of when I saw this reference in the Times article in a passage describing the operations in Navyn Salem’s Nutriset factory:

After the Plumpy’nut was mixed, it was run through overhead pipes into a contraption that squirted it into foil packets, which were sealed and ejected onto a conveyor belt, where workers packed them for shipping. In an adjacent warehouse, there were pallets of boxes labeled for delivery to Haiti, Yemen and Nicaragua.

When I visited Nicaragua in 1987, the director of a large-scale cooperative told our delegation that Nicaragua soil, enriched by volcano eruptions and steady rainfall, was the most productive in the hemisphere. You drop seeds in the ground and the crops will grow themselves. What needed to happen, however, was an end to the contra war which resulted in crops being burned, tractors being blown up and campesinos murdered.

Between 1980 and 1984, the first four years of Sandinista power, the gross product in agriculture increased by 10 percent a year. While continuing to maintain the large-scale farms that produced cash crops for export like coffee, cotton and sugar, land reform empowered smaller holdings owned by the formerly landless to produce beans, corn and other foodstuffs for the local market. It was the success of this approach that antagonized Washington, anxious to snuff out what Noam Chomsky refers to as the power of a positive example.

After Violeta Chamorro defeated Daniel Ortega in the 1990 election, she enacted “economic reforms” that were ripped from the pages of the Jeffrey Sachs of yore. The May 17, 1993 Journal of Commerce reported:

State-owned enterprises were sold or closed, the huge government bureaucracy was retrenched, and markets were thrown open to foreign trade. This sort of economic shock therapy was dictated to Mrs. Chamorro’s government by foreign lenders, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But the technocrats in Mrs. Chamorro’s inner circle believed strongly that their policies would be a magnet for foreign investors.

In other words, Nicaragua was turned into Haiti. Haiti was the hemisphere’s poorest country and now Nicaragua would land in second place.

After Daniel Ortega’s return to power in 2007, nobody expected a return to the ambitious goals of the 1980s least of all the Sandinista party that had become accommodated to global capitalism. If socialism was no longer on the agenda, the party—to its credit—was reinstating some of the egalitarian measures that benefited the poor as the website Tortilla con sal reported:

Since coming to power in January 2007 the FSLN government has brought in a number of measures aimed at increasing food security and sovereignty for the population and the nation as a whole.

The measures implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture (MAG-FOR) and other public institutions related to agricultural production include the Zero Hunger Program which aims to ensure that 75,000 rural families previously suffering varying levels of food insecurity are able to produce enough food to meet their own needs over a period of five years.

During the first two years of the FSLN government 32,359 food production packages (consisting of a pregnant cow, a pregnant sow, ten chickens, one cockerel, seeds and other inputs) were provided to the same number of families in rural areas of Nicaragua.

The government has also successfully increased the amount of basic grains being produced by small and medium farmers and agricultural cooperatives since 2007 as a result of its certified seeds program. 140,010 small and medium farmers who previously did not have access to credit to produce food were provided with zero interest in-kind loans of certified seeds and fertilizer in 2008.

Additionally MAG-FOR has overseen the implementation of the National Seed System, an inter-institutional system involving a number of public institutions. By November 2008, the national seed system had converted Nicaragua into the biggest producer of certified seeds for national production in Central America.

All this, of course, has motivated the ultraright in the U.S. to paint Daniel Ortega as a threat to American interests. As might be expected, President Obama has found their complaints seductive. In June 2009, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a government aid agency, decided to withhold $62 million from Nicaragua, a substantial sum for a poor country. The head of the agency complained that Daniel Ortega’s party had been involved in voting irregularities, a stunning complaint from a government that filled the pockets of the FSLN opposition parties with millions of dollars in 1990. As is always the case with such behavior, we are not dealing with a double standard. As Noam Chomsky once wrote:

Reigning doctrines are often called a “double standard.” The term is misleading. It is more accurate to describe them as a single standard, clear and unmistakable, the standard that Adam Smith called the “vile maxim of the masters of mankind: . . . All for ourselves, and nothing for other people.” Much has changed since his day, but the vile maxim flourishes.

From: Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy


  1. It’s likely that George Washington Carver came up with the first batch of Plump’nut so it’s another incredible stain upon imperialism’s legacy that it’s taken this long to feed the starving with it.

    Interesting too that on the one hand Nicaraguan “soil, enriched by volcano eruptions and steady rainfall, was the most productive in the hemisphere. You drop seeds in the ground and the crops will grow themselves” yet on the other hand small farmers are given loans to buy “fertilizer.”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 7, 2010 @ 7:34 pm

  2. Re: Karl Friedrich’s last point. Does Louis mean ‘most productive unfertilised soil in the hemisphere, if compared to other unfertilised soils’? If so, the distribution of fertiliser would not contradict the wider point.

    All in all, though, a fascinating, if depressing piece, that reminds me why I come back here, even if this blog is mainly reviews of films I probably won’t ever get to see.

    Comment by Dr. X — September 9, 2010 @ 10:55 am

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