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The Plumpy’Nut dust-up: Nutriset’s side of the story

The following post was written by Alanna Shaikh. Alanna is a global health professional who blogs at UN Dispatch and Blood and Milk.

Plumpy’Nut is a lifesaving Ready-to-Use-Therapeutic-Food that was developed, and patented, by a French company called Nutriset. An American NGO and company have brought suit against Nutriset in an attempt to break the patent. I wrote about the basics of the situation in a previous post.

That post brought up more questions than it answered. In an attempt to cast some light on the situation, I talked to two people from Nutriset: Remi Vallet, and Adeline Lescanne, by phone and via email. The answers below cover my communications with both of them. Mr. Vallet is the Nutriset communications officer and Ms. Lescanne is Nutriset’s deputy general manager.

The Nutriset View:

1) What’s the deal with nutritional autonomy?

When Nutriset was founded in 1986, its mandate was “feeding children.” That changed over time – the current mandate is contributing to nutritional autonomy. “Nutritional autonomy does not mean nutritional autarky,” says Vallet, “We don’t want North Koreas. But local production benefits the local economy.” Rather, communities should be able to identify their own nutritional needs and access to what they need to meet them. This means that Plumpy’Nut should be made as close to the place of need as possible. Most Plumpy’Nut ingredients are available in Africa, especially peanuts and oil.

2) Won’t restricting Plumpy’Nut to local production drive up prices and limit access to Plumpy’Nut?

Local production is not necessarily more expensive than international production; transportation taxes are high and so are import taxes. In addition, small local NGOs may not have the capacity to handle a large internal procurement of Plumpy’Nut, but they can work with a local manufacturer.  Importing Plumpy’Nut can also face political opposition, such as what we saw in India. Local production avoids that problem.

3) How does Nutriset’s patent support local production?

It’s much more difficult to set up a factory in Africa than it is in the US. African businesses have trouble accessing capital and navigating bureaucratic obstacles. The patent allows Nutriset to work with local partners and protect them from international competition while they develop. US producers would use subsidized raw materials, and overwhelm local producers.

My take on this:

I came away from my discussion with Nutriset convinced of their good intent and unconvinced of their logic. This is clearly not a case of an evil corporation profiting from hungry kids. Unfortunately, I don’t think that matters.

Nutritional autonomy is the heart of Nutriset’s case for their patent, and I just don’t get it. I spent quite a while talking to Nutriset, but I still don’t see nutritional autonomy as a justification for the Plumpy’Nut patent. It seems to me that Nutriset could support local level nutrition through methods more effective than the Plumpy’Nut patent. For example, political opposition to imported food is not immutable; Nutriset could advocate for governments to accept the product. And if local production is no more expensive than international production, it won’t make much difference if factories take longer to set up in Africa.

Nutriset is trying to argue everything at once, here, and it doesn’t hold. If locally produced Plumpy’Nut is cheaper, more accessible to small purchasers, and less taxable, why exactly does it need a patent to protect it?

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10 Comments

  1. John Gibbs wrote:

    If you import food and distribute it for free, don’t you destroy the livelihoods of the local growers, who can’t compete with “free”? So isn’t it always best to purchase or manufacture food locally, rather than importing it?

    Your argument seems to assume that the most important objective is ensuring that Aid agencies pay the lowest possible price for their Plumpy’Nut. Can’t we ask them to pay a little more to prevent destruction of local markets? Are poor countries not allowed to have anti-dumping laws?

    Posted May 6, 2010 at 12:44 am | Permalink
  2. Alanna wrote:

    John,

    If aid agencies have fixed budgets, then the less they pay for plumpy’nut, the more of it they can buy and distribute. Won’t paying a higher price mean fewer children receive it?

    Your broader point – that access is about more than low price is one I completely agree with. I am just unconvinced that the patent is the only or best way to improve access.

    Posted May 6, 2010 at 3:43 am | Permalink
  3. geckonomist wrote:

    These NGO’s only aim was to get “good” publicity for themselves.

    Easterly, Freschi et al. are the ‘usefull idiots’ who provide this publicity for the NGO’s for free.
    Again and again.

    Ms. Schaikh has no clue what patents are and what they are supposed to do, and knows bugger all about the merit of the case against Nutriset. She indeed “just doesn’t get it”.

    Suppose the NGO’s were consistent in their thinking and fight all patents around them that “inflate” the costs of helping the poor.
    That would mean at least the following:
    -They would not be able to buy one single car, computer, etc. that is not at least 20 years old, -flight tickets are not done (cause Boeing & Airbus have massive amounts of active patents),
    -they would not have one single cell phone and deny poor people the same. Etc etc.

    That leaves them in the end with ox ploughs that they deliver on a donkey.

    Bonus: if the NGO staff fall sick, only 20 year old medical technology is allowed to help them, such that it is certain no evil corporation is getting royalties from money “meant for the poor”.

    With 1,6 million patent applications filed last year (in the 5 major patent offices only), I am confident our NGO’s will fight all that might affect “the poor”.

    Posted May 6, 2010 at 3:57 am | Permalink
  4. John Gibbs wrote:

    Alanna,

    My understanding is that Plumpy’nut is only used for cases of severe malnutrition; it is not cost-effective as a general food for hungry people. Nutriset say that no child who needs Plumpy’nut ever misses out because of pricing issues. If their claim is true, the debate is not about improving access to the product; it is merely about which way of producing Plumpy’nut benefits the most people. This has nothing to do with the patent; the patent is just a tool which Nutriset say they are trying to use to prevent government-subsidized companies from taking away the jobs of people in poor countries.

    I certainly understand that aid agencies would like to stretch their budgets further by getting the cheapest prices, but they need to be sophisticated enough to offset the harm which they are causing while trying to do good.

    Posted May 6, 2010 at 6:00 am | Permalink
  5. Alanna wrote:

    John – fair point, but I’d like to see some kind of documentation that Nutriset’s claim is true.

    Posted May 6, 2010 at 11:36 am | Permalink
  6. SteveyStevey wrote:

    While I’m not 100% convinced by Nutriset’s business plan, I think the argument that all patents on goods that are used by poor people should be broken is a fallacy – it reduces any incentives that private individuals have to innovate and come up with new products for serving people in the poorest markets.

    In addition, saying that domestic production is no more expensive than international production, and therefore there should be no need for patent protection, ignores political realities. US food aid for example is all tied by law to US produced food shipped in US ships – if this happened to Plumpy’Nut then it would displace local producers, not because they are more expensive, but because they are not supported by such powerful political interests.

    Having said that, the insistence on nutritional independency is also

    Posted May 6, 2010 at 12:29 pm | Permalink
  7. To @geckonomist: I think your argument goes equally to the opposite end of the spectrum, making the assumption that all patents are good.

    The logic behind having a patent system in place for pharmaceuticals, for example, due to the high costs of R&D that a company needs to recoup, makes sense. I can even understand the business-sense behind patenting anything that may be useful to them in the future. But I also think there is a place for innovative use, shifting, and removal of patents for certain social goods. MSF has a good primer on patents and access to medicines that’s worth taking a look at, for anyone who’s not familiar with arguments for/against drug patents when the product is needed in a developing country: http://bit.ly/dgISt1.

    Posted May 6, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Permalink
  8. Jon Camfield wrote:

    My guy reaction was anti-intellectual property, as I strongly believe that our current IP schemes tend to do more damage than good. That being said, I think Nutriset is seemingly doing the right thing here – forcing support for local production. Let us presume nothing but sparkly, unicorn-bedazzled thoughts about Nutriset for a moment:

    Goal 1: Provide a therapeutic food product
    Goal 2: Ensure quality standards (duh)
    Goal 3: Make it widely available and politically tenable to “recipient” governments
    Goal 4: Don’t make things worse locally by undercutting the economy

    You could open the patent, post the ingredients and production methods and encourage everyone to go after it. This would support goals 1,3 and 4, with a risk of opportunists really wrecking #2, anyone could claim that they were using the authentic plumpynut recipe even while their product is unhealthy at best or outright deadly at worst.

    You could let other aid entities share in the patent and re-create the product with various quality assurances and fix #2, but almost assuredly lose #4 – many aid organizations have responsibilities to source their supplies from their country of origin in various tied-aid policies. These might actually lower the raw cost of the product (thanks to various subsidies), but also risk putting local farmers out of business.

    So by licensing their technology to focused, local producers, Nutriset seems to meet all four goals – they get a say in quality, make governments happy, and actually create a new market for regional farmers (possibly — hopefully even — only temporarily, but that’s better than destroying their market, where ‘temporarily’ tends to mean ‘permanently.’

    Posted May 6, 2010 at 1:35 pm | Permalink
  9. Kathleen wrote:

    Is this about a larger issue? I the world of Aid we rarely see an idea that is so simple, so effective and could easily be passed off to the people it was meant to help. In this case shouldn’t Nutriset dust off their hands, pat each other on their backs and say ‘good job, on to the next great humanitarian challenge, our work is done here.’ I think we in the Aid Community were honest with ourselves we could admit that we might not be ready for that scenario.

    Posted May 6, 2010 at 3:53 pm | Permalink
  10. georgePEG wrote:

    I’m with PlumpyNut on this one. Why?
    1. US produced product would probably be slightly different in tastem, better even, than the locally produced product and would establish itself in the local market before local production was up and running. And then local producers would face all the problems of being latecomers to the market.
    2. Local production provides livelihoods to farmers and a few workers. US-base production does neither.
    3. US inputs are likely to be subsidized, enabling the product to be sold (if not given away free) at unfair lower prices than the locally produced product.
    4. This is one of the reasons why the WTO Doha round is stuck. Because developing countries do not want to be overwhelmed by imported food from cheap producers or subsidised producers. Their urban populations might well welcome more freely available imported producers but in some African countries up to 70-80 per cent of the population depend partially or wholly on agriculture for their livelihoods.

    Governments need the discretion to protect. After all it’s the route to development followed by virtually all industrialised countries.

    Posted May 11, 2010 at 9:28 am | Permalink

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