From Hunger to Climate Change: Transform Words into Action, Says Pope Francis

06/17/2015 06:16 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016

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.