The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) largest competitive grants program. AFRI, which is administered by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), funds research, education and extension projects that address food and agricultural systems. AFRI’s Sustainable Agriculture Systems (SAS) program recently announced the availability of $90 million in funds as part of its 2019 Request for Applications (RFA).
According to NIFA, the aim of this new program is to enhance the sustainable production of food in the face of human and environmental challenges, such as human health, land and water resources, pest outbreaks, and varying climate.
Proposals must include a focus on “system approaches that promote transformational changes in the U.S. food and agricultural system within the context of the long-term goals” as outlined in the RFA (i.e. reducing input use, expanding markets, increasing productivity). Overall, research results should reflect societal benefits – such as increased rural prosperity and enhanced quality of life for those involved in food and agriculture value chains, and consider what has contributed to the successes of U.S. food and agriculture systems, and challenges to continued and future success.
This is the second year this program has been offered, and awards from the first round of funding have not yet been announced. While this program shows promise to fund revolutionary, ground-breaking research that is needed to transition our current agricultural sector into a more sustainable and resilient system, we still have many questions that must be answered to truly weigh the merits and direction of this large federal investment. These issues are discussed in further detail below.
For fiscal year (FY) 2019, NIFA expects to make approximately nine awards of up to $10 million each – a $10 million increase over FY 2018. The deadline for applicants to submit Letters of Intent is June 4, 2019. The application deadline is September 26, 2019.
Similar to last year, the SAS program will only fund integrated projects that include research, education, and extension. Thereby, this requirement excludes non-profit, private and government research institutions from even applying (though they can partner on a project led by a college or university), due to what NSAC believes is NIFA’s faulty interpretation of current law and congressional intent.
Projects must work to transform the U.S. agriculture system in sustainable ways to solve the challenges of a world approaching a population of 10 billion by 2050. Creative and visionary projects that use a systems approach for improving the safety, accessibility, and affordability of food while anticipating future cultural, behavioral, and environmental impacts, as well as improving economic development and prosperity in rural America will be considered.
Projects submitted to this RFA must align with AFRI’s six priority areas, as defined in the 2018 Farm Bill: plant health and production; animal health and production; food safety, nutrition, health; bioenergy, natural resources, environment; agriculture systems and technology; and agriculture economics and rural communities. Projects can focus on bioenergy, aquaculture, rural communities, human nutrition, food production, food safety, classical breeding, among others.
Applicants must address one or more of SAS’s long-term priorities. Additionally, metrics must be included to measure progress of the project, along with demonstrable efforts for education and training. For the 2019 RFA, priorities include:
- Increasing profitability by reducing input use, expanding existing and creating new markets, increasing productivity and curbing production losses. Project foci under this priority might include: technologies and management practices, strategies for climate adaptation, non-traditional crops and breeds, integrated pest management, and identifying barriers to improving agricultural production and profitability.
- Fostering economic development and prosperity in rural America. These projects should address catalyzing value-added innovation, bio-based products that promote ecosystem resources, economics and human health, and overall improvement of profitability and productivity.
- Enhancing the health of the nation through new or existing technologies, education and other resources to ensure access to safe, nutritious, and affordable food. Project areas include developing pre-harvest strategies like new plant varieties and animal breeds that promote food safety, as well as mitigating foodborne hazards.
For a more detailed description of the 2019 RFA research priorities, view the RFA at NIFA’s website.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) regularly provides feedback and recommendations to USDA agencies on future funding priorities and program implementation. Following the feedback we provided to NIFA for the FY 2018 SAS RFA, we are encouraged by their emphasis on transdisciplinary science and support for sustainable food and agricultural systems. Additional improvements in this year’s RFA include the focus on research that aims to improve animal breeds and plant cultivars, as well as research that focuses on rural economies as part of the strategy for meeting the program’s longer-term goals.
While these are steps in the right direction, several unanswered questions remain regarding the development of the SAS program goals, including: whether or not there was adequate stakeholder involvement; if one project’s goals can adversely affect other goals; and whether the distribution of a small number of large awards is a better use of funding versus the distribution of smaller amounts over a larger number of recipients.
We also found that many of the recommendations we put forward to strengthen the program’s focus on “sustainability” have not yet been addressed. For example, NSAC strongly encourages NIFA to prioritize research around plant and animal breeding, soil and water resources, climate change resiliency, and farm sustainability and rural communities. Because the 2018 SAS awards have not been published, it is not yet possible to analyze the results of the FY 2018 RFA and understand how that research will or will not meet these long-term challenges in a way that fosters sustainable agriculture and resilient farming systems and communities.
On the final question to be addressed relates directly to equity in the distribution of federal resources. NSAC believes that while larger projects could have some benefits, they 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 publish more information as the program continues to evolve, and more information becomes available. Anyone interested in learning more about AFRI overall can visit our Grassroots Guide for additional information.