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.