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Ditching gas to save the planet risks mass starvation, top UN economist says

A leading food economist has warned against moving away from natural gas production too soon, arguing more people will starve to death if the consequences are not thought through.

Energy prices have soared following Russia’s war on Ukraine — and that has also jacked up the cost of fertilizers, which are produced from natural gas. Global crop yields are now in jeopardy in the months to come.

Máximo Torero, the chief economist at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, told POLITICO that if Europe looks for immediate alternatives to Russian gas, prices will rise further, making it impossible for millions of people to buy food. “If you switch the energy mix too quickly, you will increase the price of energy,” he said. “Then you will increase the price of fertilizers, you increase the price of food, more people dying of hunger. So what do you want?”

Torero’s comments fly in the face of Europe’s two most pressing strategic concerns: lowering the bloc’s emissions and becoming energy independent. Torero believes the consequences of moving off cheap fossil fuels towards more expensive alternatives could be deadly. It could compel EU policymakers to rethink their flagship environmental bill, the European Green Deal, and polarize Brussels further.

A sharp divide already exists between officials like Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans, who argues the EU should now double down on its ambitious climate goals as it moves away from Russian fossil fuels, and others, like the center-right European People’s Party, which is pushing back against any fresh legislation that could curtail food yields.

Torero clarified that he is “fully in favor” of lowering emissions, only that policymakers needs to be aware of how the energy transition might affect food prices.

In the worst case scenario, 18.4 million more people will be chronically undernourished next year because of the war, Torero said. That comes on top of an extra 161 million people he already predicted would be tipped into desperate hunger in 2021, linked to post-COVID price shocks. The U.N.’s Food Price Index hit a record high in March.

Torero warned that the world is far too reliant on a small handful of major food exporters, like the EU, U.S., Brazil and India, which itself announced an export ban on wheat over the weekend. With food exports from Russia and Ukraine down, the world is more exposed to a climate shock like flooding or droughts in any major food producing country.

That makes the trade-offs even tougher to navigate, Torero warned. “We need to understand that actions have consequences. You cannot go just with the goal of climate without assuming that there is not an interlinkage over hunger,” he said.

Torero recommended EU policymakers think hard about veering away from dependence on natural gas and synthetic fertilizers. EU countries are currently debating ending Russian oil imports, with gas likely to be the next major target of sanctions. Brussels is also pressing ahead with the Green Deal, which sets the agriculture sector a non-binding target to reduce its use of fertilizers by at least a fifth by 2030.

Torero said the best way forward would be to use fertilizers more effectively. “The way fertilizer is being used is very inefficient,” he argued, saying that typically farmers end up overloading their fields with a ready-made “package” of booster nutrients that the soil doesn’t really need.

He criticized the EU for freeing up millions of hectares of fallow land from green rules in order to plant more food, saying it was a mistake because this kind of non-productive land is needed to keep the food system healthy and won’t provide the yields producers expect.

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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