June 4, 2010
On Wednesday, June 2, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) held a stakeholder listening session on its largest competitive research grants program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). NSAC’s Policy Director Ferd Hoefner and member organizations, the Organic Farming Research Foundation and the Union of Concerned Scientists, delivered oral remarks.
Significantly overhauled, the AFRI 2010 Requests for Applications (RFAs) focus on five “challenge” areas — climate change, childhood obesity, bioenergy, food safety, and global food security — and one foundational program area focused on funding smaller, research-only grants.
There is much room for improvement in the new RFAs with respect to the implementation of several new categories established in the 2008 Farm Bill, including classical plant and animal breeding, rural entrepreneurship, and domestic marketing strategies. While sustainability is a touted aim of the program, the RFAs fall short of supporting research into diversified crop-livestock sustainable and organic systems that stand to deliver positive outcomes in the five challenges areas.
Structurally, the 2010 RFAs raise two major concerns. First, the awards made in the five challenge areas are “continuation” awards, which means that projects awarded in 2010 will be funded for only one year at a time, even though they are awarded as 5-year projects. In this scenario, unless Congress appropriates additional funding for AFRI in future years, AFRI will have very limited funds with which to fund new projects, as each year’s appropriation will just keep funding the same projects awarded this year.
Second, the programs within the Foundational Program are limited to research-only grants, which is not appropriate for programs such as “Prosperity of Small and Medium-Sized Farms and Rural Communities” that would benefit from extension and education components. The 2008 Farm Bill, in fact, requires that at least 30 percent of all projects be integrated projects, combining research, education and extension, and what USDA is designating as the “Foundational Program” is in fact the program that was authorized by Congress in the farm bill.
NSAC comments also addressed the need to have separate grant categories for Small and Medium-Sized Family Farms and for Rural Development and Entrepreneurship, rather than the combined approach that AFRI adopted for the first time this year. We also urged that funding for these programs should rise in line with rising appropriations, rather than the level funding they received this year, consistent with USDA Secretary Vilsack’s priority on rebuilding rural economies and local and regional food systems.
NIFA is accepting input on the AFRI RFAs through June 7, 2010. For more information about how to submit comments, click here.