December 11, 2020
Long-term sustainable agriculture research is critical to growing and supporting every American farm, especially as farmers across the country continue to address the challenges posed by a changing climate. USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Sustainable Agriculture Systems (SAS) program – initiated to enhance the sustainable production of food in the face of human and environmental challenges – is poised to support $150 million in sustainable agriculture research for FY 2021, with awards up to $10 million per project.
The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) largest competitive grants program, administers the SAS program to support research that “promote(s) transformational changes in the U.S. food and agriculture system.” The FY 2021 Request for Applications (RFA) will identify projects that focus on the themes put forward in the USDA’s Science Blueprint, released as part of the Agriculture Innovation Agenda earlier this year. These themes include:
According to the RFA, these approaches “must demonstrate current needs and anticipate future social, cultural, behavioral, economic, health, and environmental impacts.” This third installment of the SAS program offers a hefty investment, but previous awards have had mixed reception with many questioning whether the research truly support the tenets of sustainable agriculture.
FY 2021 RFA Overview
NIFA states that the long-term purpose of this SAS RFA is to address USDA’s goal of increasing U.S. agricultural production by 40 percent in the context of “economic, societal, and environmental attributes of sustainability.” For FY 2021, there are two program area priorities under which applicants can apply – Sustainable Agricultural Systems and Sustainable Agricultural Systems Program Evaluation.
Letter of Intent Deadline – January 7, 2021; Application Deadline – April 1, 2021
This priority area focuses on transdisciplinary teams that integrate research, education, and extension activities to solve challenges to food and agricultural production systems. FY 2021 applicants will have to address one or more of the following goals:
Sustainable Agricultural Intensification – Ensure sustainable food supply with judicious use of resources and minimal environmental impacts using advanced technologies, regenerative agriculture, optimal management practices, and protection of plants and animals from biotic and abiotic stresses. These projects must consider:
Agricultural Climate Adaptation – Allow unmanaged and managed systems to be fully leveraged for mitigating and adapting to climate change. Projects are encouraged to coordinate with USDA climate hubs on research addressing:
Value-added Innovation Rural Agriculture-based Economy – Foster economic development and prosperity in rural America by catalyzing production of high-value biobased chemicals, food and feed ingredients, and other products using agricultural feedstock, enhancing local human capital, and attracting supportive infrastructure. Projects supporting this goal must develop or implement both of the following:
Food and Nutrition Translation – Changes to food and agricultural systems influence the incidence of foodborne diseases and risks for chronic disease, as well as affect food wastage. Projects will need to address one or more of the following:
Letter of Intent Deadline – March 4, 2021; Application Deadline – July 1, 2021
This new program area seeks to develop an assessment of the SAS program from its inception in FY 2018 and continuing through to FY 2024. Project proposals should provide a programmatic review of SAS projects including their relation to USDA’s strategic goals and Agriculture Innovation Agenda, and an assessment of SAS program impacts, a roadmap for future SAS priorities and education programming to support best practices for SAS project management. One award of up to $1 million is anticipated to be made for this priority area.
This FY 2021 RFA utilizes the combined budgets from FY 2020 and FY 2021 cycles. This is because an RFA for FY 2020 was not published. The actual budget for FY 2021 is being projected as the passage of an appropriations bill for FY 2021 has not been completed as of the publication of the RFA. As a result, the actual funding availability may be adjusted.
Awards of up to $10 million each will be made for the Sustainable Agricultural Systems priority area and $1million for one project for the Sustainable Agricultural Systems Program Evaluation priority area.
SAS Research Highlights
The last set of awards made for the SAS program was announced earlier this year for the FY 2019 cycle. Nine projects from eight institutions received awards for research ranging from improving practices in poultry production and food safety, to efficient water use, nutrient management, and improvements in the value chain of biofuel production. This includes a project by scientists at the University of Minnesota that will further breeding and genetics and improve agronomic education and policy for the perennial grain crop (intermediate wheatgrass), Kernza.
For the FY 2018 cycle, eight awards were made, including one to the University of Wisconsin’s Grassland 2.0 Agroecological Transformation to Perennial Grassland Agriculture project. For this project Wisconsin researchers (including NSAC Members – Michael Fields Agriculture Institute and the Wallace Center) will attempt to transform agriculture in the North Central Region from grain-based to perennial grass-based livestock production. Plans include restoring much of the ecosystem structure and function of the region’s native prairies by replacing annual crops in the North Central U.S. with perennial grasslands.
While there were a few projects that stood out among the last two sets of awards, most funded projects seem to stray from the principles of sustainable agriculture. Unfortunately, projects have focused on addressing inputs into large scale factory farming while ignoring the inherent unsustainable nature of factory farming systems. Many increase reliance on artificial intelligence and digital automation – technology that is still far from reach for many small and mid-sized farmers, and some projects still do not adequately account for the continued degradation of soil and water quality or the impacts on rural economies.
SAS program’s focus on fewer, but larger projects with longer-term research can limit the breadth and diversity of research topics and can also increase inequities in the program. Larger projects most often benefit higher-capacity institutions that already have the most access to resources and networks that allow for increased collaboration. NIFA should provide greater outreach and support for smaller institutions to partner with larger institutions, as well as increase consideration of historically underserved institutions when deciding which projects ultimately receive funding.
NSAC will continue to track the SAS program and provide recommendations to NIFA as the program evolves. The entirety of the FY 2021 SAS RFA can be found on NIFA’s website. Anyone interested in learning more about AFRI overall can visit our Grassroots Guide for additional information.