Can Plumpy’Nut Solve Global Hunger?

Whether or not you believe in global warming or climate change, the last few years have been riddled with extreme weather patterns around the globe.

A child at a clinic eats her Plumpy Nut, a peanut based nutritional supplement distributed to malnourished children.
Janie Barrett | Fairfax Media | Getty Images
A child at a clinic eats her Plumpy Nut, a peanut based nutritional supplement distributed to malnourished children.

"It's brought both floods and droughts," says Navyn Salem, executive director of Edesia, a Rhode Island based nonprofit which manufactures high calorie foods to help severely malnourished children.

The main product Edesia churns out is called Plumpy’Nut, a peanut-based paste created by Nutriset. Each Plumpy'nut package contains 500 calories and needs no preparation or refrigeration. Nutriset is a for-profit company based in France, and sales of Plumpy’Nut from the parent company and nonprofit partners like Edesia topped $100 million last year.

At a time when the United Nations is so concerned about food scarcity and inflation(learn more) that it has asked the United States to suspend its ethanol mandate, UNICEF is planning to increase its Plumpy’Nut purchases from 27,000 metric tonnes in 2011 to 28,000 MT this year and 32,000 MT in 2013. (Read More: Potential Grows for Food Crisis as Prices Surge.)

"There's a steady increase in demand," said Salem. Her Rhode Island plant manufactured 3,700 MT of Plumpy’Nut last year, but it has the capacity to ramp up another 60 percent. The only thing stopping it is a lack of funding. "There is a big difference in need and funded need," she added. (Read More: ‘Food Economics’: A CNBC Special Report.)

Donations to UNICEF and other agencies, which buy Plumpy’Nut, dropped off in the recession (learn more) in 2009, but Salem noted they have since recovered. Another challenge has been peanut prices, which rose considerably in the U.S. last year, forcing Edesia to look for other peanut sources. "We've been able to keep our end price stable," she added.

A $50 supply of Plumpy’Nut will rehabilitate a severely malnourished child in six weeks. As for peanut allergies, Salem noted that is something you only see in the developed world, not in places like rural Africa.

Still, it can be difficult to get a young child to eat, even if he's on the brink of death. "Their bodies have trained themselves to shut down and not eat food," she said. Taste matters. "Plumpy’Nut tastes like the inside of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup ... the kids really like it."

Nutriset has made headlines for aggressively protecting its patents against those who seek to make a Plumpy’Nut “knockoff” at a lower price. "Poverty is a business,” Dr. Patricia Wolff told the The New York Times two years ago. Dr. Wolff makes a different fortified nut paste in Haiti.

Some countries are making their own paste from local foods. Navyn Salem pointed out that Pakistan, for example, doesn't have a lot of peanuts, so a paste is being made from chickpeas.

"To be able to see a child come in who is literally unable to open his eyes or hold up his head, and watch him transform into a regular two-year-old, to run around and play on his own ... I see it as such an amazing investment," Salem said.

—By CNBC's Jane Wells; Follow Her on Twitter @janewells