USDA Solicits Stakeholder Input on Agricultural Research
March 1st, 2012
Last week, over 150 people attended a stakeholder listening session to provide feedback on ways to improve the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) – USDA’s largest competitive grants program that funds agricultural research, education, and extension projects. The session was hosted in Washington, D.C. at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) – the federal agency responsible for administering AFRI. Almost 50 stakeholders gathered to give public testimony on the FY 2013 AFRI program, including individual researchers, and representatives from land-grant colleges and universities, professional science societies, and private industry trade organizations. Juli Obudzinski presented comments on behalf of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and its members.
AFRI was established in the 2008 Farm Bill, and is authorized to receive $700 million in appropriated funds per year. In 2011, AFRI received $265 million in appropriations, and awarded $244 million in grants through seven separate program areas.
The Foundational program funds basic and applied research projects that address any of the six legislatively mandated priority areas, including:
- Plant health and production and plant products;
- Animal health and production and animal products;
- Food safety, nutrition, and health;
- Renewable energy, natural resources, and environment;
- Agriculture systems and technology; and
- Agriculture economics and rural communities.
In addition to the foundational program, more than half of AFRI’s funding is awarded to projects that cover five administratively identified “challenge areas,” which are guided by USDA’s long-term strategic plan. These include:
- Climate Change and Variability
- Food Security
- Sustainable Bioenergy
- Childhood Obesity Prevention
- Food Safety
Finally, AFRI also offers a fellowship program, which awards grants to pre- and post-doctoral graduate student research, that addresses one of the program areas listed above.
Several of the comments presented in last week’s listening session included recommendations to increase the balance between funding for the foundational program and the challenge areas, to increase the number of smaller grants awarded, and to increase the funding available for individual, investigator-led research projects. The priority areas within the foundational program are the ones authorized by Congress in the 2008 Farm Bill, and yet only 30 percent of total AFRI funding is allocated to this program.
Many also suggested revising the program’s Requests for Applications (RFA) to make it less prescriptive, in order to increase the flexibility in the types of research projects that can be funded within AFRI. Another common recommendation was to increase resources for projects that have an extension component, including minority led extension projects that address food insecurity within rural communities. Finally, several stakeholders addressed concerns of inadequate research projects funded on food safety, immigration and farm labor, political and economic impacts of agriculture research, integrated pest management, and antibiotic resistant bacteria.
The specific recommendations included in NSAC’s comments were to:
- increase resources on, and give priority to research projects that lead to the release of farmer-ready public crop varieties;
- expand the emphasis on organic and sustainable farming systems;
- restore a balance between the authorized foundational programs and challenge area grants;
- include an emphasis on beginning farmers and ranchers, and local/regional food systems;
- open up additional foundational programs to include integrated projects;
- require each program to be fully competitive and open to all applicants authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill, including research agencies and non-profit organizations;
- include smaller grants for innovative projects, including farmer-driven research;
- streamline the application process and reduce administrative requirements for applicants with more limited institutional capacity.
The program is up for reauthorization at the end of this fiscal year, and Congress is currently debating the details of what should be including in the next farm bill. NSAC and its allies in the agricultural research community will continue to support this important source of federal funding for research on sustainable agriculture systems, and will be advocating for important policy changes in the farm bill reauthorization.
NIFA will continue to hold upcoming listening sessions to address each of the seven AFRI programs separately. These listening sessions will be conducted virtually, and organized in a webinar format. To see more information on upcoming listening sessions, see the AFRI website.
NIFA will be accepting written comments on the FY13 AFRI program through March 22. All those who wish to submit comments can do so by visiting www.regulations.gov (identify comments as NIFA-2012-0004), by emailing to AFRI@nifa.usda.gov, or by mailing to AFRI; IFPS, NIFA, USDA, STOP 2220, 1400 Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC 20250-2220. All written comments must be received by 5:00 pm EST on March 22nd.