Andrew Rice has an excellent article that touches on many issues related to food ethics in the September 7 issue of the New York Times Magazine. In “The Peanut Solution,” Rice describes the development of a highly nutritious peanut paste that has proven to be highly successful at addressing malnutrition in children. It is a product that is highly nutritious, does not need refrigeration, and allows home treatment of malnourished children (a big advantage over other treatment regimens that require lengthy and costly hospital stays). The product in question, Plumpy’nut, is one of a growing number of ready-to-use therapeutic foods (R.U.T.F.) that have garnered attention from health professionals, aid agencies, donors, and as Rice details, companies both big and small and for profit and not for profit.

A number of questions related to food ethics emerge from Rice’s description of the origins of Plumpy’nut and its development as a therapeutic and consumer product:

  • Should products designed to meet critical aid needs be protected and marketed like other consumer products?
  • Should therapeutic products be afforded patent protection to encourage innovation in the area of RUTF’s and other low cost, high impact treatments or are they a broader class of medical intervention that require a different model for governance and protection?
  • How are answers to such questions tied into larger questions about the role of food aid an its multiple purposes to promote domestic agricultural production in developed countries and address humanitarian needs in developing countries?
  • How can the structure of therapeutic food networks hinder or promote the development of domestic industries and efforts to address malnutrition in developing countries?
  • How do questions and answers change as RUTF products move from treating problems like childhood malnutrition towards broader goals of preventing children from becoming malnourished in the first place?

An important theme that runs through Rice’s article (as well as other treatments of Plumpy’nut such as Marion Nestle’s and a reaction by Jeffrey Sachs, Jessica Fanzo and Sonia Sachs) is the recognition that food questions are first level political and ethical questions that need greater attention.

Ultimately, addressing malnutrition in a sustainable way is not just an issue of food and nutrition, but must be part of broader efforts to alleviate poverty and address failures of development such as lack of infrastructure and economic opportunity. As Rice puts it, there is “no foil-wrapped answer to the maddening persistence of poverty.” It is unlikely that science and technology alone, even when they provide solutions like Plumpy’nut that seem like silver bullets to critical problems, will be able to unravel the complex political and ethical questions which underlie problems like poverty and malnutrition. 

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