ROME — Pope Francis called hunger and malnutrition a cause of scandal on Thursday, and declared that the poor of the world “ask for dignity, not charity.”

Visiting the Roma-based headquarters of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization for the first time, the pontiff called for a more equal distribution of food, denouncing the waste and excessive consumption of rich nations.

“It is painful to see that the struggle against hunger and malnutrition is hindered by market priorities, the primacy of profit, which have reduced foodstuffs to a commodity like any other, subject to speculation, also of a financial nature,” Francis told delegates from more than 170 countries gathered for a conference on nutrition and food.

“While we speak of new rights,” Francis said, “the hungry remain at the street corner and ask to be recognized as citizens, to receive a healthy diet.”

“We ask for dignity, not for charity,” he said.

Francis addressed the assembly in his native Spanish; the Vatican released translations in four languages, generally signaling that papal aides regard it as a major address.

Quoting St. John Paul II at the inauguration of the organization’s hall during a similar conference in 1992, Francis said that although there’s enough food in the world, not everyone can eat, “while waste, excessive consumption, and the use of food for other purposes is visible before our very eyes.”

Francis applauded the aim of this year’s meeting to study forms of intervention in the fight against hunger and joint efforts by governments, international institutions, organizations of civil society, the world of agriculture, and the private sector.

The pope didn’t sugarcoat his expectations: A fairer distribution of food “cannot remain in the limbo of theory,” he said.

Taking place Nov. 19-21, the nutrition conference has seen a wide range of heads of state and government ministers in attendance, including the king and queen of Spain.

Francis added a strong environmental message to his speech.

Talking about the exploitation of the planet, the pope shared a phrase he learned from an elderly man many years ago: “God always forgives — our misdemeanors, our abuse, God always forgives,” said Francis. “Men forgive at times; but the Earth never forgives.”

“We must care for our sister the Earth, our Mother Earth, so that she does not respond with destruction,” said Francis.

The Vatican has announced that a major document on the environment is being written by Pope Francis, and is expected to be published during the first third of 2015.

The statements made on Thursday are far from being the pontiff’s first call against the global market system. In his first encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium [which translates to Joy of the Gospel], he denounced the “utter evils of capitalism,” and has done so again many times since then.

The care for the poor has been a priority for Pope Francis since the beginning of his pontificate. Two days after being elected pope, he told journalists covering the process in Rome that he wanted “a poor Church for the poor.”

The pontiff recently instructed his papal almoner, Polish Archbishop Corrado Krajewski, to install shower stalls in the bathrooms in St. Peter’s Square so homeless people could wash regularly.

He also recently gave the green light for a charity raffle of gifts he has received in the past 20 months, including a Fiat Panda 4×4, a tandem bicycle, and a coffeemaker, with proceeds to go to the poor.