January 13, 2020
Editor’s note: This is an updated post of an article originally published by NSAC in May 2019 that has been updated to reflect changes made to the FY 2020 Request for Application, which was recently released late 2019.
The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) is the largest federal agricultural research competitive grant program. In May 2019, AFRI released its fiscal year (FY) 2020 Request for Applications (RFA) for its Foundational and Applied Science Program, which was recently updated and re-released by USDA. The purpose of AFRI’s “Foundational” program is to invest in research, education, and extension projects that support more sustainable, productive, and economically viable agricultural systems. Specifically, the program’s focus is to drive innovation to improve farm efficiency, sustainability, rural communities, human nutrition, as well as mitigating food waste and advancing classical breeding.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) estimates $192.6 million will be available in FY 2020 for the foundational and applied science program.
RFAs are due by November 18, 2020, although subprograms have separate deadlines (see more below). For detailed information on AFRI, including eligibility criteria, please see NSAC’s Grassroots Guide to Federal Farm and Food programs.
Click the links below to jump directly to specific program information:
NSAC is pleased that AFRI continues to focus on research that supports the growth and economic success of rural communities (including small and medium-sized farms) and plant breeding research. NSAC has long advocated that the agency elevate these research priorities, and is encouraged by the continued program progress, including updates to the FY 2020 RFA.
This latest AFRI RFA includes a new directive from the 2018 Farm Bill to support soil health research, as well as research projects focused on helping beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers adopt new practices and tools to advance sustainability. The RFA also includes a focus on projects that help beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers access the information and resources they need to operate their farms sustainably and profitably.
Research on the impacts of climate variability on sustainable agriculture systems, however, is still not given its own priority. This research is included throughout several AFRI program areas, including: plant health and production, pollinator research, natural resource programs, and other collaborative research. NSAC will continue to encourage NIFA to designate this critical research area as a standalone priority.
NSAC has also long advocated that NIFA distinguish plant breeding research, which would to ensure an even distribution of funding and outcomes across applied and basic plant breeding research. In line with NSAC’s recommendations, the FY 2020 RFA will award distinct plant breeding related projects: basic plant breeding research (e.g., pre-breeding, germplasm enhancement, phenomics), and later stage cultivar development (e.g., testing and evaluation of regional traits). NSAC applauds this improvement to the way plant breeding research has been funded and we will continue to work with NIFA to further refine the research needs of this program area.
Missing in the FY 2020 RFA are the “crop breeding innovation hubs” and “high-intensity phenotyping sites” project options, which were featured in the FY 2019 RFA.
As in past years, Foundational and Applied funds are awarded to projects for periods up to five years. Funding across the major research areas are the same as last year with the exception of the “crosscutting” program which received an increase of $10.585 million. The program’s six overarching priorities are funded as follows:
Each of the six priority areas contains sub-priorities that align with the strategic goals of the AFRI program. There is also a seventh area, Crosscutting programs, funded at $21.6 million. This support is intended for integrated projects that “crosscut” two or more of the other listed priority areas.
Detailed in the remainder of this post are several AFRI program areas of particular interest to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and sustainable agriculture community.
Continued growth of agricultural gains around crop production is the main goal of the Plant Health and Production and Plant Products research priority area. Research to develop new technology and tools to further improve plant agriculture, including new traits, integration of production systems, and improved stewardship of natural resources are sought.
There are six research topics under the Plant Health and Production and Plant Products program: (a) Foundational Knowledge of Agricultural Production Systems (b) Foundational Knowledge of Plant Products, (c) Pests and Beneficial Species in Agricultural Production Systems (d) Physiology of Agricultural Plants. (e) Plant Breeding for Agricultural Production (f) Pollinator Health: Research and Application.
New program priorities within this research area include projects that narrow gaps in food and agricultural defenses, initiatives to expand gene editing for plants, and improving knowledge of plant products. This research priority also supports agricultural micro-biomes and plant-biotic interactions.
A key sub-subprogram of particular interest to NSAC is AFRI’s Plant Breeding for Agricultural Production. The deadline for this subprogram is March 19, 2020. Plant breeding research to support crop productivity, quality, and performance in local and regional soils and climates is the focus of this program priority. Under this category research must address one of the following:
The Plant Breeding Partnership option is new in the FY 2020 RFA and is available to applicants that include specific types of partnerships (i.e., minority-serving institutions, small- to mid-sized institutions, state institutions, and/or international partners). A minimum of $150,000 of the budget under this option must be allocated to the institution(s) included as partner(s). The funding cap for the Plant Breeding Partnership is $650,000.
NIFA, in collaboration with various commodity boards, is also soliciting proposals for FY 2020 gene editing technologies and quality enhancement genes of hard winter wheat and later stage cultivar development for pulse crops (e.g., dry peas, lentils, and/or chickpeas).
The Bioenergy, Natural Resources, and Environment program area strives to promote, improve, and maintain healthy agroecosystems essential to the long-term production of agricultural systems. Projects are highly encouraged to partner with existing research networks such as the Long-Term Agroecosystem Research Network (LTAR), the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER), National Agricultural Library Ag Data Commons, and others. Several sub program areas under this research priority of keen interest to the sustainable agriculture community.
Projects should focus on understanding soil health processes to promote sustainable agriculture production and boosting better yields and profits. Potential practices include sequestering more carbon, increasing water infiltration, and improving pollinator and wildlife habitat. The funding cap for this subprogram is $500,000, and the deadline to apply is April 2, 2020.
Water Quantity and Quality
Research that identifies nontraditional water irrigation practices, ecosystem services, and ensuring the quality of water availability is encouraged. The funding cap for this subprogram is $500,000, and the deadline to apply is April 2, 2020.
Sustainable Biomass Feedstock Systems
Projects under this subprogram should enable novel crops and/or cropping systems to create bioproducts with tangible bio-economic value while improving agroecosystem health. The funding cap is $1,000,000, and the deadline to apply is April 2, 2020.
Sustainable Agroecosystems: Health, Functions, Processes and Management
Research projects should focus on improvement in ecosystem system health and productivity in managed natural systems that lead to improvements in soil health and ecosystem services. The funding cap for this subprogram is $500,000, and the deadline to apply is April 9, 2020.
The Agriculture Economics and Rural Communities (AERC) program area looks at economic and social science research to help in decision-making, policy, and implementation to promote rural economies, quality of life, and natural resources. This interdisciplinary program also focuses on commodity policies, crop insurance, and food security and market preferences. Key sub-program areas include those for Small and Medium-Sized Farms and Rural Economic Development.
Small and Medium-Sized Farms
Projects applying under this subprogram should aid the development and adoption of on-farm decision-making models that help farmers improve economic efficiency, viability, and competitiveness of their crop and/or animal operations. This program area has been expanded in FY 2020 to include new focus on creating opportunities for young, beginning, socially-disadvantaged, veteran, and immigrant farmers and ranchers. Projects targeted at these populations might, for example, address farm succession, transition, entry, or profitability models for small and medium-sized farms. Projects can also examine the challenges of “Agriculture of the Middle” in developing strategic alliances among farmers, processors, and retailers. The funding cap for this subprogram is set at $500,000 and the deadline to apply is March 5, 2020.
Rural Economic Development
Research should prioritize understanding the factors and conditions that help strengthen economic opportunities for food, agriculture and rural business, with special focus on women and minority groups. They can also identify strategies for economic growth in regions of persistent extreme poverty that can directly or indirectly impact public-health crises. The funding cap for this subprogram is set at $500,000 and the deadline to apply is April 16, 2020.
In addition to the six priority research areas of this RFA, the Crosscutting program funds projects that address two or more of the six priority areas. For instance, the Agricultural Innovation through Gene Editing focus area under the Crosscutting program awards up to $300,000 to projects that overcome technological barriers and expand the use of gene editing technology in minor agricultural crops, weedy plants, animals or microbes. Application deadlines for Crosscutting projects depend on the sub-priority research area.