The Plumpy’nut dustup

The following post was written by Alanna Shaikh. Alanna is a global health professional who blogs at UN Dispatch and Blood and Milk. There is a fight brewing over Plumpy’nut, a fortified peanut butter product used to treat malnutrition in children. The company that invented Plumpy’nut has a patent on the product. Two American NGOs want to make their own version, but rather than pay a royalty fee, they are trying to break the patent. They have two main points. First, that Plumpy’nut as a product is too simple to be patentable, and second, that the patent is limiting access to the product.

Plumpy’nut is a bona fide miracle product. It’s easy for health care providers to administer, and it’s easy for patients to consume. Vacuum packed and shelf stable, it’s easier to store and transport than the fortified formulas that are otherwise used to treat malnutrition. It doesn’t require access to clean water like the formula powders do. And children love it and can eat it on their own, without parental help. Using Plumpy’nut instead of traditional F100 or F75 formulas increases cure rates to levels that have never consistently been seen before. It’s not surprising, therefore, that its patent has caused a lot of resentment.

Nutriset, the French company that invented Plumpy’nut, argues that the patent is not about profit. They claim that it is needed to protect the quality of the peanut paste. They were quoted in the Associated Press as saying “The limits let the company maintain quality while licensing production in the developing world - helping alleviate hunger and create jobs…” Their commitment, they state, is to “nutritional autonomy.” Letting products flood the global market would keep countries from being able to establish their own production. And it’s true that their field operation has helped several countries set up factories to produce Plumpy’nut. Lastly, Nutriset states that according to UNICEF, worldwide production capacity for Plumpy’nut is already double the existing demand.

It’s too easy to frame this as business versus humanitarianism. The Plumpy’nut patent is not global, and Nutriset actively encourages the production of Plumpy’nut in the developing world. Flooding the market with cheap American-made products would discourage countries from developing their own production;  it would also help malnourished children by improving access to peanut paste.

The media coverage seems to missing the third side of this story: the economic view of the lawsuit. From that perspective, both sides have some major flaws in their arguments. Where is the incentive to develop products for poor people if there is no profit in it? We want the private sector to work to meet the needs of the poor. If products that do that can’t be patented for humanitarian reasons, who will bother to develop them? And why exactly do we care if countries can produce their own Plumpy’nut? What is the value of “nutritional autonomy,” anyway?

That makes me wonder if there is a solution to be found by economists. Could we have advance market commitments for peanut butter?