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AFRI’s Foundational RFA Open to Research on Sustainable Agriculture

May 24, 2019

Soybeans ready for testing seed viability at the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agricultural Research Service (ARS), National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation at the National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Ft. Collins, CO, on September 16, 2016 USDA photo by Neil Palmer.
AFRI’s Foundational program invests in research, education, and extension projects that support more sustainable, productive, and economically viable agricultural systems. Photo Credit: USDA (Neil Palmer)

The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the largest federal agricultural research competitive grant program, released its Request for Applications (RFA) for its Foundational and Applied Science Program for the fiscal years 2019 and 2020. 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.

For 2019, NIFA estimates $192.585 million will be available for both FY2019 and FY2020 for the foundational and applied science program. While the FY2020 RFA is being released concurrently with FY2019, the actual funding level for FY2020 will be determined only after the enactment of the agricultural appropriations bill for FY2020 later this year.

The Foundational and Applied Sciences RFA follows the release of the Sustainable Agriculture Systems RFA which will award nine grants of up to $10 million each around large scale, integrated projects that address system approaches to transform sustainable agriculture in the U.S. While the Sustainable Agriculture Systems program focuses on transdisciplinary science for agricultural systems, the Foundational and Applied Science program prioritizes smaller, specialized projects around a variety of disciplines.

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:

  • Plant health and production and plant products – $43.9 million
  • Animal health and production and animal products – $36.8 million
  • Food safety, nutrition, and health – $26.2 million
  • Bioenergy, natural resources, and environment – $21.7 million
  • Agriculture systems and technology -$19.5 million
  • Agriculture economics and rural communities – $22.9 million

Each of the six priority areas contains sub-priorities that all align with the strategic goals of the AFRI program. There is also a seventh area, Crosscutting programs, funded at $21.585 million, which is intended for integrated projects that crosscut two or more of the other listed priority areas.

The following are several highlighted program areas of particular interest to NSAC in this FY2019 and FY2020 RFA:

Plant Health and Production and Plant Products

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.

For FY2019, there are three new program area priorities within this research area. These new areas include projects that narrow gaps in food and agricultural defenses, initiatives to expand gene editing for plants, and improving knowledge of plant products. In addition to the new additions, this research priority also supports agricultural micro-biomes and plant-biotic interactions.

A key sub-subprogram of particular interest to NSAC is public plant breeding:

Plant Breeding for Agricultural ProductionFY2019 deadline July 18, 2019; FY2020 deadline 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:

– Plant breeding research (Funding cap $500,000);
– Later stages of cultivar development (Funding cap $300,000);
– Crop breeding innovation hubs (Funding cap $1,000,000), and
– High-intensity phenotyping sites (Funding cap $3,000,000).

Further, NIFA, in collaboration with various commodity boards, is also soliciting proposals around germplasm enhancement and cultivar development of wild wheat and potato species, as well as phenotyping of wild peanut.

Bioenergy, Natural Resources, and Environment                                                

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. There are several sub program areas under this research priority of keen interest to NSAC including:

Soil HealthFY2019 deadline August 1, 2019, FY2020 deadline April 2, 2020

  • Projects should focus on understanding soil health processes to promote sustainable agriculture production along with boosting better yields and profits, including sequestering more carbon, increasing water infiltration, improving pollinator and wildlife habitat. Funding cap $500,000.

Water Quantity and Quality FY2019 deadline August 1, 2019, FY2020 deadline April 2, 2020

  • Research that identifies nontraditional water irrigation practices, ecosystem services, and ensuring the quality of water availability is encouraged. Funding cap $500,000.

Sustainable Agroecosystems: Health, Functions, Processes and Management FY2019 deadline August 8, 2019, FY2020 deadline April 9, 2020

  • 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. Funding cap $500,000.                                                              

Agriculture Economies and Rural Communities              

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, as well as food security and market preferences. Specific sub-program areas include we pay close attention to are:

Small and Medium-Sized FarmsFY2019 deadline July 18, 2019; FY2020 deadline March 5, 2020.

  • Projects should address issues around development and adoption of models to assist on-farm decision-making regarding strategies to improve economic efficiency, viability, and competitiveness of small and medium-sized dairy, poultry, livestock, crop, and other operations. This program area has also been expanded to include new focus on creating opportunities for young, beginning, socially-disadvantaged, veteran, or immigrant farmers and ranchers. This includes tools addressing farm succession, transition, entry, and profitability for small and medium-sized farms. Funding cap $500,000.        

Rural Economic DevelopmentFY2019 deadline August 15, 2019; FY2020 deadline April 16, 2020                                                                                                        

  • 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. Funding cap $500,000.                         

As mentioned, 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.                            

Improvements and NSAC Recommendations

NSAC is pleased to see the continued focus on research to support the growth and economic success of rural communities including small and medium-sized farms, and plant breeding research, all of which NSAC has previously recommended the agency elevate as research priorities. For FY2019, the RFA designates soil health as a standalone research priority under the BNRE program. The soil health priority will not only investigate the impact of health soil but also analyze microbiome and soil health indicators.

New additions to this RFA include the new directive from the 2018 Farm Bill for research and outreach to beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers. Research will now focus on the adoption of new practices and tools that help these farmers access the information and resources they need to operate their farms on a sustainable and profitable basis.

Research on the impacts of climate variability on sustainable agriculture systems is still not given its own priority even though it is included throughout the program areas plant health and production, pollinator research, as well as the natural resource programs. We will continue to encourage designating this critical research area as a standalone priority.

Over the years NSAC has urged the agency to distinguish plant breeding research to ensure an even distribution of funding and outcomes across applied and basic plant breeding research. This year, in line with NSAC’s recommendations, the RFA will award distinct plant breeding related projects: basic plant breeding research (pre-breeding, germplasm enhancement, phenomics, etc), later stage cultivar development (testing and evaluation of regional traits), as well as crop breeding hubs and phenotyping sites which are larger regional, community-based data generation and field research. 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.


Universities and colleges, federal agencies, private organizations, and other research institutions are eligible for AFRI awards with the execption of programs that request integrated projects combining two or more components from among research, education, and extension/outreach, which USDA is continues to limit to colleges and universities only. NSAC continues to urge USDA to come into compliance with the statute and make AFRI fully competitive, with all programs, including those requesting integrated programs, open to all AFRI eligible entities and invididuals. Sadly, USDA continues to insist on keeping integrated projects restricted rather than fully competitive and based solely on merit.

Applications are reviewed in a two-part process. The first process involves screening applications for those that meet the requirements set in the RFA, while the second is a peer-review process to technically evaluate proposals. Here, applications are set before a review panel composed of scientists and other practitioners in research, extension, and education fields.

Deadlines for the various program areas of this RFA fall between July and September, and some priority areas require a letter of intent. All information related to dates and priority area-specific funding can be found in the Foundational RFA Document.

For more detailed information on AFRI, including eligibility and details on how to apply, please see NSAC’s Grassroots Guide on AFRI.

Categories: Research, Education & Extension

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