Transforming words into action to end hunger and malnutrition and to promote sustainable development was the central message of the traditional address by His Holiness Pope Francis to the nearly 200 delegations that attended the FAO Conference last week. This includes actions by all of us: citizens, governments and international organizations. This call comes at an important moment. 2015 is the year in which we conclude our Millennium Development Goal (MDG) commitments and embark on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The change is about much more than just one letter: it is about the commitment to ensure a livable planet for future generations and, in the case of hunger, setting our aim for its complete eradication. And on June 18, Pope Francis will release the much-awaited Papal Encyclical on Climate Change. This affects all of us and is especially threatening to poor and vulnerable populations. Sea levels are rising and putting at risk the very existence of some Pacific Islands, which are powerless to react because it is not their action that is causing this phenomenon. A warmer climate in tropical areas and an increase in the frequency and force of extreme weather events make it even more difficult for millions of families to produce or buy the food they need. The Papal Encyclical will contribute to the debate on climate change and sustainability, both of which are key factors in achieving food and nutrition security, and thus touch on critical aspects of FAO’s work and mandate. In a brief conversation before his address to the FAO Conference, the Pope underscored the importance of publicly discussing his next encyclical as widely as possible. FAO will be part of this effort. As the neutral international forum for food and agriculture, FAO opens its doors to this debate with the hope that it will strengthen and expand the efforts already in place to curb climate change. As the Pope insisted throughout his address to the FAO Conference, all of us – and “all of us” is much more than any specific Organization! - need to act, but he noted that many times we prefer to delegate or wait for someone else to take action. He welcomed the fall in hunger, but warned us that it was of little use to count the number of hungry people if we neglect the obligation to eradicate hunger and prevent all forms of malnutrition worldwide. Pope Francis spoke of food waste and challenged us to ask “What can we do?” and “What am I already doing?” These are the questions that every person, every government and organization must ask to fight not only food waste, but also climate change and hunger. At FAO, we ask ourselves these questions every day and as we find responses we sharpen our priorities and adjust our work to become more effective. A key element identified for FAO by Pope Francis was the need to further strengthen its field presence, so as “to be present in the midst of the rural world and to understand the needs of the people that the Organization is called upon to serve”. We must transform words into action, keeping the poor and hungry at the center of our efforts. There is no doubt in my mind that we can successfully tackle climate change, for example, but that is not enough: “We must guarantee increasingly healthy environmental conditions, but can we continue to do this by excluding someone?” asks the Pope. And the answer is no: we cannot call development sustainable if millions are left behind, excluded from the opportunity of a decent life by poverty and hunger. That is the commitment we made at the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Conference and it is at the heart of the SDGs that the global community will adopt later this year. The challenges the world faces today are sometimes so big and so many that they can scare us into inaction or nudge us into looking only at our immediate surroundings or our immediate needs. We need to resist the temptation to do both. Emergency assistance is often necessary, but it is not enough: long-term food security can only be achieved if people are empowered and given the tools they need to take their future into their own hands. Our solidarity cannot be limited to times of extreme need. We need to put solidarity back at the heart of international relations. And we need to put solidarity back into our action at citizens. There are many ways we can do it. The first step is signing the Milan Charter, the legacy document of the universal exposition Expo Milano 2015, as many others and I have done over the past months. By putting solidarity at the center of our actions as individuals, communities, and international relations, I share with Pope Francis - and many others of different faiths, color, nationality and political positions - the conviction that we will be able to act effectively to transform the words that appear in our logo into reality: “Fiat Panis”. Let there be bread.
When the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) was held in Rome last week, one very special moment took place, one which I personally feel was filled with poignancy.In order to take part in the event, Pope Francis entered the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations headquarters for the first time and broke protocol by suddenly stopping by my side in the building’s main entrance hall. It is a place where marble tablets line a wall, each bearing the preamble of FAO’s constitution in the organization’s six official languages plus that of the host country, Italian.The pontiff immediately began reading out aloud excerpts of the preamble: “raising the levels of nutrition and standards of living of the peoples ... and ensuring humanity's freedom from hunger”. He then turned to me and exclaimed: “What a noble mission!”As it turned out, those very words were later echoed in Francis’ address to ICN2 participants, including ministers and top officials from more than 170 countries. The pontiff’s message was clear: The eradication of hunger, which is one of the main purposes why FAO was established, cannot be achieved if it is not guided by the principle of solidarity. The point Francis stressed is that there exists a lack of solidarity among States and therefore, also among their people. If differences and conflicts over economic interests prevail, then the elimination of hunger and malnutrition will remain only in the form of lofty commitments, but will not be transformed into concrete actions.As the pontiff said, often the mere promulgation of laws – such as the right to food and the right to life – does not always have a positive impact on the real needs of the hungry.As a reminder, I will now repeat what I often say: one out of every 9 people in the world is still chronically undernourished, even if there is enough food to feed all. In other words, solidarity – the Pope’s catchphrase – is more than a recommendation. It is a call to action aimed at governments, institutions, the business world and to people in general. It is the moral imperative that should lead to the sharing of wealth, income and of course food. The lack of solidarity, the Pope said addressing ICN2 delegates, is due to the prevalence of greed and to market-driven priorities. At a time when food is being increasingly reduced to the level of a commodity, poor and starving people still lack an opportunity to assert their right not to go undernourished and to have decent livelihoods. As Francis said they want dignity and not charity. In this regard, I wish to highlight another reflection made by the Pope: not only is there disparity in the distribution of food, but also in the way that people eat. While some have poor or insufficient meals, others feed themselves in ways that are wrong or excessive.This is one of ICN2’s key messages: nutrition is a public issue. Malnutrition is a major threat to people’s health and welfare. It imposess unacceptable health, social and economic costs, especially on society’s more vulnerable groups such as children, women and the elderly. It also has a negative impact on human physical and cognitive development, and therefore, on productivity and more broadly, the economic growth of countries.Improving nutrition and ensuring that all have access to a healthy diet is not an individual responsibility. Nutrition is a public issue, and must be addressed, in fraternal dialogue, by governments, civil society, the private sector and academia. At the end of his speech, the pontiff mentioned the need to care for the Earth. Our planet, the pontiff warned, reacts relentlessly and destructively against those who fail to not look after it. In his words: “God always forgives; men forgive at times; but the Earth never forgives”. I wish to build upon Francis’ message and mention FAO’s focus on tackling the effects of climate change, which are already devastating some parts of the globe such as the islands of the Pacific, and the promotion of sustainable food systems. These are two of our priorities, two of our ongoing challenges. To conclude, I would like to comment on another remarkable episode that took place during the Pope’s visit to FAO. Immediately after his speech to the plenary of ICN2, Francis made his way into a small room, where he addressed a special audience: the FAO staff, or the main agents of our “noble mission”. Speaking to them, he recalled the importance of selflessness in helping those who suffer from hunger and malnutrition. "I thank you for your service … It (FAO) has set itself the objective to reduce chronic hunger and develop the food and agriculture sectors worldwide. I know that you have a spirit of solidarity and understand that what you do goes beyond paperwork. Your hidden work takes into account the most needy, people - men, women, children, grandparents, the hungry. They ask us for dignity, not charity!", the Pope said.After spending a few hours with us at FAO, the Pope returned to the Vatican. He left us with a clear sense of the mission we all have ahead of us – a noble mission accomplished in solidarity with other human beings.