Peanut paste: The link between Putin’s war and starving children

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Patrick, a severely malnourished child, holds his Plumpy'nut sachet during a visit to a clinic funded by the EU and UNICEF in Madagascar.
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After Russia invaded Ukraine, Riaan Oosthuizen noticed troubling trends at his Cape Town factory which manufactures ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF), a peanut butter-like paste that helps reverse child malnutrition. 

Demand was rising sharply amid drought and conflict in the Horn of Africa. But the cost of key ingredients like milk powder and vegetable oil was skyrocketing, driven by price speculation and scarcity of staple foods held up by the war in Ukraine. “We have our backs to the wall,” he says. 

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Millions across Africa are at risk of acute hunger as Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has turned food into a weapon of war.

UNICEF says the price jump means it can reach 600,000 fewer children with the same funding as before the war started.  

Beleaguered citizens are looking for alternative solutions. In West Africa, a group of leading bakers have formed an organization to lobby for more local grains, like cassava, to be used in breads across the region. And in Cape Town, Mr. Oosthuizen’s team is hurrying to develop new recipes that rely on cheaper ingredients. But RUTF has to adhere to strict nutritional standards, meaning there’s “no quick fix.”

The red and white sachets are a familiar sight in disaster zones around the world. They contain a thick peanut butter-like paste of so-called ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF), which has become a global frontline against child starvation in the last two decades.

But earlier this year, Riaan Oosthuizen noticed a troubling set of trends at the RUTF factory where he is managing director at GC Rieber Compact in Cape Town, South Africa. On the one hand, demand for the sachets was rising as drought and conflict pushed millions of children in the Horn of Africa to the brink of starvation. 

At the same time, the cost of his ingredients was skyrocketing. Fueled by price speculation and growing scarcity of staple foods caused by the war in Ukraine, the cost of vegetable oil climbed 50% in just three months. His bill for milk powder, another key ingredient in the paste, nearly doubled. And fuel prices were also ticking upwards, driving up the cost of running the factory’s generators whenever the South African power grid failed. 

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Millions across Africa are at risk of acute hunger as Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has turned food into a weapon of war.

“We have our backs to the wall,” he says. 

The factory is currently producing at a loss, while another RUTF factory in South Africa recently folded. 

Around the world, the war in Ukraine has driven a massive spike in food and fuel prices. But nowhere has this been felt more acutely than in sub-Saharan Africa, where in many countries the rising costs have been heaped atop existing crises – drought, war, extreme poverty, and the lingering economic trauma of the pandemic. 

And the case of RUTF offers an urgent cautionary tale about a fragile global food chain. That a food formulated to reverse malnutrition has become a major casualty of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine highlights the deep inequalities of global food distribution. With food a weapon of war, the impact is reverberating through the lives of the world’s poorest people. 

Barometer of health  

Almost every ingredient in RUTF, often called “Plumpy’nut” after the original brand name, is a barometer of the global staple food supply lines.

Invented by a French nutritionist named André Briend in 1996, RUTF was an improvement on previous malnutrition treatments that required clean water and preparation by health care workers. Inspired by a jar of Nutella in his cupboard, Dr. Briend formulated a paste made of peanuts, milk, sugar, oil, butter, and vitamins. It could easily be eaten by children without assistance, and stored without refrigerators.

In the years since Plumpy’nut’s invention, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says RUTF has saved “hundreds of thousands of lives.” UNICEF, the world’s biggest buyer, purchases around 49,000 metric tons annually, or 75% to 80% of the world’s supply.


Sally Hayden / SOPA Images/Sipa USA/Reuters/File
Medics from Doctors Without Borders stand over a pile of the food Plumpy'Nut in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria's Borno State. Also called ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF), it is designed as a frontline tool against child starvation. But it has been growing costlier to produce due to the war in Ukraine, even as food insecurity in Africa has been rising.

But earlier this year, UNICEF’s suppliers began reporting that the costs of their ingredients were spiking. Ukraine is among the world’s top suppliers of cooking oil, grains, and fertilizer, and since February, most production has halted or is being held hostage inside the country by a Russian blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. 

The shortage of wheat, in particular, has had knock-on effects throughout the global food chain. Dairy prices – including for the tons of powdered milk that factories like Mr. Oosthuizen’s need to make RUTF –  have soared, because cows eat grains too. 

“So many of the ingredients [of RUTF] were affected by the war in Ukraine,” says Christiane Rudert, a regional nutrition adviser for UNICEF for southern and eastern Africa. UNICEF now projects that the overall cost of RUTF will rise 16% in the next four months. Meanwhile, sanctions against Russia, the world’s second-largest exporter of oil and gas, have caused fuel prices to skyrocket globally, making it much more expensive to deliver RUTF as well. 

“We can reach 600,000 fewer children with the same funding” as before the war started, she says. 

That could push people already on the brink of starvation over the edge. 

In the Horn of Africa, rising food costs have collided with the region’s worst drought in 40 years. Over the past two years, four consecutive rainy seasons have failed in Somalia and parts of Kenya and Ethiopia. About 1.7 million children regionally are in need of treatment for severe malnutrition – treatment like RUTF.  

“The prognosis is not positive for this region” over the next several months, Ms. Rudert says. “Famine is looming.” 

Alternative solutions

Even in countries where the crisis is less severe, rising food costs are battering communities already reeling from two years of a pandemic and its lockdowns. In Malawi and Zimbabwe, for instance, the cost of bread has risen 70% since February, according to ActionAid. 

In Tongaat, an old industrial town flanked by sugarcane fields outside Durban, South Africa, Nozipho Zungu says she has watched the price of staple foods tick up every month this year. “But what choice do you have when it comes to food? You spend more,” she says. 

She and her three children have cut back on other parts of their life: They walk longer distances now, instead of taking public transport, or forgo new school uniforms. The money she brings in each month – about $125 selling socks and dish towels at a local bus rank, and another $100 in childcare grants from the state – isn’t rising to match food prices, she says. 

The continent relies heavily on imported wheat because of unpredictable climate patterns and outdated farm technology – and almost half of the continent’s wheat imports typically come from Ukraine or Russia.

“That makes Africa particularly vulnerable to shocks like the war in Ukraine,” says Noncedo Vutula, an agricultural trade expert and senior research fellow at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance at the University of Cape Town. 

In Ghana, for instance, inflation hit 27% in June – the highest level in two decades there – sending protesters into the streets demanding the government stabilize the prices of staple goods like food and fuel. 

Beleaguered citizens have begun to look for alternative solutions to stabilize food prices. In West Africa, a group of leading bakers met in June to form an organization that lobbies for more local grains, like cassava, to be used in breads across the region. Local ingredients could “solve food crises,” Marius Abe Ake, an Ivorian baker, told France 24. 

Back in Cape Town, Mr. Oosthuizen says his team is hurrying to develop and test new recipes for RUTF that rely on cheaper ingredients. But because the therapeutic paste has to adhere to strict nutritional standards, there’s “no quick fix.” 

In the meantime, the factory has been forced to lay off about 40 of its 120 workers, Capetonians who are themselves facing food prices that are up 12% over the past year. 

For Mr. Oosthuizen, it’s another domino in the chain started by the war. 

“Those are breadwinners for their families,” he says. “Now what happens to them?”  

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