Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Jeffrey Sachs: Saying "Nuts" to Hunger - A Followup on Plumpy'Nut

The article agonizes over the patent status of Plumpy'Nut. We have two observations. First, it is absurd to think that a patent should legitimately give a monopoly right to use a fortified peanut-paste to fight acute hunger. The ingredients are simple: peanut paste, vegetable oil, powdered milk, powdered sugar, vitamins, and minerals. The nutritional values of peanuts and the other ingredients have been known for ages, and only the worst misuse of patent law would grant a broad monopoly claim to such knowledge.

Second, as the article mentions, but does not adequately emphasize, it is a standard solution of global intellectual property law that urgent public health needs supersede patent rights. Poor countries should exercise their full right of "compulsory licensing" and other legal protections to produce or to import urgently needed low-cost nutritional supplementation in the face of famines, just as they do to obtain low-cost AIDS medicines. Of course, any RUTF should ensure quality control in the preparation, packaging, and shipment of the foodstuffs. Nor should UNICEF, the world's leading and highly effective organization on behalf of the world's children, give any comfort to a private company seeking undeserved and ultimately life-threatening price markups for basic and widely held nutritional knowledge, especially since those price-markups demonstrably limit UNICEF's and others' ability to deliver emergency foodstuffs to all of the children in acute need.

We also note that Nutriset cannot claim that it expended vast R&D outlays to come up with Plumpy'Nut. It would be fine public policy to award Nutriset a one-time public payment to cover and even exceed its past R&D costs, but the public-health community should insist on the right of any producer to bring to the market low-cost, quality-controlled, peanut-based, fortified, ready-to-use foods in response to famines and other food emergencies.

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.

The full article addresses more issue than just patents. Sachs points out that, while Plumpy'Nut may be an important tool in combating malnutrition worldwide it is not -- as is sometimes suggested in the Times Magazine article -- a solution to global hunger.

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