The gathering was called to help prepare for a U.N. food systems summit to be held in September in New York.

Earlier this month, a U.N. report noted that up to 161 million more people faced hunger last year compared to 2019, with much of that widened suffering likely linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Poverty, income inequality and the high cost of food continue to keep healthy diets out of the reach of some 3 billion people,” Guterres said. “Climate change and conflict are both consequences and drivers of this catastrophe.”

The International Fund for Agricultural Development called on decision-makers “to address the failures in food systems” that leave hundreds of millions of people poor and hungry. IFAD is a U.N. agency which aims to help small-scale farming.

IFAD said food systems must “radically change” to ensure access to affordable and healthy food, where food production “protects the environment and biodiversity, and where people who produce our food are paid decently for their labor.” It added that “the needs of rural people must be at the center.”

In 2020, as many as 811 million people faced hunger, according to the U.N. report earlier this month.

Guterres said the preparatory work in Rome will help set the tone for action this decade and for an “equitable and sustainable recovery from COVID-19.”

Such efforts carry a substantial monetary price tag.

The chief economist of the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has said that removing 100 million people from chronic undernourishment would need an additional $14 billion (nearly 12 billion euros) every year until 2030 and nearly triple that amount to achieve the U.N. goal of zero hunger by 2030.

According to U.N. projections, the goal will be missed by a margin of nearly 660 million people, with about 30 million of that figure possibly “linked to the pandemic’s lasting effects.”

(Copyright 2021 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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