By Nigel Hunt
LONDON (Reuters) - Climate change may pose a much more serious threat to the world's poor than existing research has suggested because of spikes in food prices as extreme weather becomes more common, Oxfam said on Wednesday.
More frequent extreme weather events will create shortages, destabilize markets and precipitate price spikes on top of projected structural price rises of about 100 percent for staples such as maize over the next 20 years, the charity said in a report.
Droughts in the U.S. Midwest and Russia this year have helped to propel prices for maize and soybeans to record highs and United Nations food agencies this week said that world leaders must take swift action to ensure that food-price shocks do not turn into a catastrophe that could hurt tens of millions of people.
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that the 2007/08 price spike contributed to an 8 percent rise in the number of undernourished people in Africa.
"For vulnerable people, sudden and extreme price hikes can be more devastating than gradual long-term rises to which they may have more chance of adjusting," Oxfam said in a report.
"Though the price spike and coping strategies may be short-term, the impacts are often felt across generations. An increase in malnutrition can cause stunting and reduce developmental potential in young children."
Oxfam added that existing research, which considers the gradual effects of climate change but not extreme weather, significantly underestimates the implications of changing weather patterns.
The charity insisted there is an "urgent need for a full stress test of our fragile and dysfunctional food system" and called for a reversal of decades of underinvestment in small-scale sustainable and resilient agriculture, as well as urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
"Climate change could lead to a permanent increase in yield variability and excessive food price volatility, however, which could leave many poor countries with potentially insuperable food security challenges," Oxfam said.
(Editing by David Goodman)