St. Paul, MINNESOTA — On June 10, 2021, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations called for immediate action regarding the acute food famine in Ethiopia, where more than 5.5 million struggle with high levels of food insecurity. Children are especially vulnerable during this crisis. According to the World Health Organization, childhood malnutrition can lead to consequences that can last for a lifetime, including poor emotional skills and weak immune systems. Fortunately, U.N. agencies continue to fight acute malnutrition with therapeutic foods including Plumpy’nut. In this way, the U.N. is saving lives using peanuts to combat the latest famine in Ethiopia.
A History of Famine
Ethiopia’s famine crisis in the 1980s was one of the worst humanitarian events of the 20th century. It prompted a global response to provide food and save as many lives as possible. Several conditions led to the famine in Ethiopia including failed harvests, food scarcity and reoccurring drought. The famine left more than one million dead and millions more displaced without resources. Since then, Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme has provided millions of chronically food-insecure developing households with predictable, multiyear assistance that helps families rely less upon emergency assistance.
During the 1980s and 1990s children with acute malnutrition needed to go to therapeutic feeding centers (TFCs) for round-the-clock care to get sufficient nutrition. Because trained medical personnel staffed these TFCs, they were expensive and scarce, and the government eventually banned them. However, in 2000, the government gave the green light to the humanitarian organization Concern Worldwide and the research organization Valid Nutrition to start a pilot program to test ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) that could be given to children by their families and other community members instead of medical professionals.
Changing Lives with Peanuts
The pilot produced Plumpy’nut, a peanut-based paste that effectively builds up children’s nutrients. The product is made of high-energy peanut paste containing sugar, skimmed milk powder, vitamins and minerals and vegetable oil. It can be used at home and is easy to store. It is also easy to travel with and can be given to children and infants at any time of the day. Now there are other RUTFs as well as Plumpy’nut used by families in Ethiopia and other countries plagued by acute malnutrition.
One package of RUTF such as Plumpy’nut can treat malnutrition in children between 6 months and 5 years old. The Plumpy’nut pilot also yielded the Community Management of Acute Malnutrition (CMAM) program. This program helps mothers by allowing them to bring their children to a nearby clinic for weight and height checks. Afterward, the mothers get a certain amount of Plumpy’nut, training, and then go back home and take charge of the nutrition management. Weekly appointments continue until the malnutrition significantly subsides.
UNICEF is the world’s chief Plumpy’nut and RUTF distributor. It purchases 49,000 metric tons of RUTF annually, which is 70% to 80% of the global supply.
Unfortunately, as famine looms in Ethiopia, RUTF ingredient costs are soaring due in part to the war in Ukraine that has blocked exports. Ukraine is one of the largest producers of cooking oil, grains and fertilizer. Luckily, UNICEF has been diversifying its suppliers, with a focus on local markets and finding less expensive alternative ingredients for RUTF products. In this way, UNICEF continues its commitment to saving lives using peanuts.
– Alexis King