Peanuts, in a specially blended formula, have saved tens of thousands of children from death by malnutrition, but if logistic, political and patent battles are resolved, the number could reach into the millions.

Jeff Johnson, Birdsong Peanut Company, says a ready to use therapeutic food, based on peanut butter and including sugar, milk or soy, vegetable oil and micro-nutrients is an important part of the solution to the problem of malnutrition, which is responsible for half of all child deaths worldwide.

He said 95 percent of children treated with the product recover. “It costs $25 to save a child,” Johnson said during a session on industry benevolence during the recent Southern Peanut Growers Conference in Panama City, Fla.

He said hunger is the greatest single threat to human health in the world. “More than 1 billion people suffer from hunger and most of those are women and children,” he said.

Project Peanut Butter, in the African country of Malawi is currently using the therapeutic food to treat malnourished children. “The goal of Project Peanut Butter (http://www.projectpeanutbutter.org) is to save 2 million children by 2015,” Johnson said.

The peanut butter-based product is ideal as a therapeutic food. “It is nutritionally dense, requires no refrigeration, does not need to be mixed with water or cooked, requires no medical supervision, is cheaper than traditional milk formulas and kids love it.”

He said if malnutrition is caught at the right time, at about two years of age, the child’s brain will develop normally. A high percentage of children treated with the product continue to do well.

The solution seems simple, Johnson said, but the reality of politics and greed create roadblocks. He said patent claims, product approval processes, and bureaucratic inaction often slow the process of getting the therapeutic food to the children who need it. “We also face ignorance on the nutritional value of peanuts and competing interests slow the process.”

Currently, malnutrition is treated with a corn and soy-based product, “which is not good for malnourished kids,” Johnson said. “It fills them up, but is not a nutritional, therapeutic product. It’s time to change and change is coming.”

It’s just coming slowly and it has to compete with what may be an inferior product in a $2.5 billion business. “USAID donates $2.5 billion in food aid but none is peanut butter. It’s mostly corn and soy.”

He said a French company also charges patent infringement on the therapeutic product, a claim Johnsons says is ludicrous. “It’s like patenting a combination of salt and water and calling it the ocean.”

He said science is on the side of the peanut product. “But politics often trumps science.”

He said a new, improved soy and corn product has been touted as providing better nutritional value.”But it still has to be blended with water and cooked.”

He said a major advantage of the peanut product is that a mother can administer it, easily. “It empowers mothers,” Johnson said. “This is the right thing to do. It has already saved tens of thousands of lives and has the potential to save millions more.”

Other speakers addressed recent events to which the peanut industry responded with generosity to help people in distress. Stephanie Grunenfelder, American Peanut Council, said peanut butter plays a crucial role in feeding less fortunate people.

“Food banks were critically short of peanut butter following salmonella scares in 2009,” she said. She related how peanut grower groups across the country responded to put peanut butter back on the shelves of food banks. Peanut butter is the No. 1 staple for food banks because of its high nutritional value.

“These groups were aware of what needed to be done to restore peanut butter,” she said.

Sally Wells, Birdsong Peanut Company, reported on the U.S. peanut industry’s response to the Haiti earthquake last winter. “We had two semi-trailer loads of peanuts ready to ship to Haiti within a week of the disaster,” she said.

That amounted to 260,000 pounds of peanuts and peanut products and $400,000 worth of products and services. More assistance continues to come from the industry as Haiti struggles to recover from the earthquake, she said.

e-mail: rsmith@farmpress.com