May 29, 2018
A new funding opportunity offered by the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) seeks to help researchers address critical challenges related to the long-term sustainability of agriculture. Late last month, NIFA released a new Request for Applications (RFA) for “Sustainable Agricultural Systems” projects under the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). According to the RFA, projects will be sought which address the impacts of “diminishing land and water resources, changing climate and increasing frequency of extreme weather events, threats of outbreaks of diseases and pests, and challenges to human health and well-being.”
There is currently $80 million in funding for this RFA, with a per project funding cap of $10 million. NIFA expects to fund 8 projects at $10 million each for this cycle. The deadline to submit letters of intent is June 27, 2018 and the deadline apply for funding is October 10, 2018.
The new RFA replaces five existing AFRI program areas, known as “challenge areas,” which are: Childhood Obesity; Food Safety; Climate Variability and Change; Bioenergy; and Water. NIFA will no longer offer RFAs for these challenge areas. Over the years, these challenge areas have supported important research projects at a variety of scales and on a great variety of issues. It is not yet clear if and how the types of projects funded through the new RFA will change relative to those funded through the former challenge areas, though the number and scale of projects will certainly change. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is hopeful that the new RFA will continue to fund systems-based sustainable agriculture projects; however, we are also concerned that NIFA’s decision to fund only eight major projects will shut out the type of high-risk, high-reward research that helps get cutting edge ideas off the ground.
Larger projects could have some benefits but could also increase inequities in the program. Larger projects often benefit institutions with economies of scale, as they have the most access to networks that allow for increased collaboration. Larger projects also tend to increase the visibility of institutions that have greater access to resources than others. We hope that NIFA will provide outreach and support for smaller institutions, as well as consider historically underserved institutions when deciding which projects ultimately receive funding.
As NIFA moves forward with the RFA, we hope that it adds clarity to the process by answering the following questions:
Request for Applications
The Sustainable Agriculture Systems program will focus on both rural and urban communities, and is not limited to national research. Projects must suggest “transformational changes” that could be made to the U.S. food system within the next 25 years, and should advance societal benefits that improve quality of life across food and agriculture value chains.
Applications must address, or provide the platform to address, one or more than one of the following 25-year goals:
The RFA specifies that the aforementioned goals should act as guidance for projects and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Applicants are encouraged to define the scope of their projects and how they can fit in to help achieve one or more of the program’s goals.
Projects should also work to address the AFRI priority areas that were legislatively mandated in the 2014 Farm Bill:
Given that this is a new funding area within AFRI, applicants can expect NIFA to provide outreach and support for all stakeholders interested in submitting a proposal. All projects will require a “Letter of Intent,” which should highlight the goals of the project. NIFA has specific requirements for what the letter of intent should look like, and no applications will be considered without its submission.
Unlike other NIFA RFAs, this program requires that all projects focus on Research, Extension, and Education (as opposed to focusing on just two out of the three). As referenced above, only universities and colleges are eligible to be the primary applicant for these proposals; however, NIFA encourages applicants to work with other stakeholders across the food system to create more collaboration across disciplines and participant categories. The RFA also emphasizes the solicitation of project proposals that work to engage farmers and the next generation of farmers.
NSAC will work to publish more information on this new research area as it evolves. Anyone interested in learning more about AFRI overall can visit our grassroots guide for more information.