NSAC's Blog

New Funding Opportunity Aims to Increase Sustainability Research

May 29, 2018


Researcher Nahla Bassil at the Agricultural Research Service National Plant Germplasm System Station in Corvallis, OR. Photo credit: USDA.

Researcher Nahla Bassil at the Agricultural Research Service National Plant Germplasm System Station in Corvallis, OR. Photo credit: Kanika Gandhi.

A new funding opportunity offered by the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) seeks to help researchers address critical challenges related to the long-term sustainability of agriculture. Late last month, NIFA released a new Request for Applications (RFA) for “Sustainable Agricultural Systems” projects under the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). According to the RFA, projects will be sought which address the impacts of “diminishing land and water resources, changing climate and increasing frequency of extreme weather events, threats of outbreaks of diseases and pests, and challenges to human health and well-being.”

There is currently $80 million in funding for this RFA, with a per project funding cap of $10 million. NIFA expects to fund 8 projects at $10 million each for this cycle. The deadline to submit letters of intent is June 27, 2018 and the deadline apply for funding is October 10, 2018.

The new RFA replaces five existing AFRI program areas, known as “challenge areas,” which are: Childhood Obesity; Food Safety; Climate Variability and Change; Bioenergy; and Water. NIFA will no longer offer RFAs for these challenge areas. Over the years, these challenge areas have supported important research projects at a variety of scales and on a great variety of issues. It is not yet clear if and how the types of projects funded through the new RFA will change relative to those funded through the former challenge areas, though the number and scale of projects will certainly change. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is hopeful that the new RFA will continue to fund systems-based sustainable agriculture projects; however, we are also concerned that NIFA’s decision to fund only eight major projects will shut out the type of high-risk, high-reward research that helps get cutting edge ideas off the ground.

Larger projects could have some benefits but could also increase inequities in the program. Larger projects often benefit institutions with economies of scale, as they have the most access to networks that allow for increased collaboration. Larger projects also tend to increase the visibility of institutions that have greater access to resources than others. We hope that NIFA will provide outreach and support for smaller institutions, as well as consider historically underserved institutions when deciding which projects ultimately receive funding.

As NIFA moves forward with the RFA, we hope that it adds clarity to the process by answering the following questions:

  • How did NIFA develop the 25-year goals outlined in the RFA (see below)? What was the stakeholder engagement process?
  • Will NIFA remove the current anti-competitive, anti-merit based policy of excluding all entities that are not a college or university from competing for integrated project funding? If not, how can NIFA continue to refer to the program as a competitive grant program? On what philosophical basis does NIFA decide to exclude so many organizations, laboratories, and agencies from even the opportunity to compete for integrated funding?
  • Will one or more projects focus on an agro-ecological approach to farm and food systems?
  • Will selected projects be focused on a single 25-year goal, or multiple goals, or all of them simultaneously? Could a project be selected that addresses one or more goals that could negatively impact other goals? How will the selection process guard against that result?
  • Will panels be trans-disciplinary? Will all projects be in a general pool and assigned randomly to review panels, or will the subject areas be divvied up and sent to panels specializing in that one issue?
  • Are eight $10 million projects the best use of money? Why not a balanced approach, with some large projects and some mid-sized projects, for a total of, perhaps, 15-20 awards? Might not some mid-sized projects be more innovative than mega projects? Might not a more balanced portfolio result in more risk taking, with the potential for greater total impact?
  • What are the total allocations for AFRI in 2018? What will be the total amount of the Foundational RFA? What will be the size of continuation awards? Of the continuation awards, what is the amount for each challenge area, and what is the amount for each foundational area?

Request for Applications

The Sustainable Agriculture Systems program will focus on both rural and urban communities, and is not limited to national research. Projects must suggest “transformational changes” that could be made to the U.S. food system within the next 25 years, and should advance societal benefits that improve quality of life across food and agriculture value chains.

Applications must address, or provide the platform to address, one or more than one of the following 25-year goals:

  1. Increase growth of agricultural total factor productivity (TFP) from the current 1.5 percent to 2 percent per year and increase agricultural production by 2 percent annually.
  2. Improve water, nitrogen, and phosphorus nutrient use efficiency by 50 percent.
  3. Reduce losses due to environmental stresses, insects and other invertebrate pests, weeds, or diseases by 20 percent in crops and animals used for food, fiber, or bioproducts production.
  4. Produce 50 billion gallons of biofuels and 50 billion pounds of biobased chemicals and bioproducts in the next 25 years.
  5. Reduce food-borne illnesses to 8.5 cases per 100,000 people in the U.S. population per year.

The RFA specifies that the aforementioned goals should act as guidance for projects and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Applicants are encouraged to define the scope of their projects and how they can fit in to help achieve one or more of the program’s goals.

Projects should also work to address the AFRI priority areas that were legislatively mandated in the 2014 Farm Bill:

  1. Plant health and production and plant products;
  2. Animal health and production and animal products;
  3. Food safety, nutrition, and health;
  4. Bioenergy, natural resources, and environment;
  5. Agriculture systems and technology; and
  6. Agriculture economics and rural communities.

Given that this is a new funding area within AFRI, applicants can expect NIFA to provide outreach and support for all stakeholders interested in submitting a proposal. All projects will require a “Letter of Intent,” which should highlight the goals of the project. NIFA has specific requirements for what the letter of intent should look like, and no applications will be considered without its submission.


Unlike other NIFA RFAs, this program requires that all projects focus on Research, Extension, and Education (as opposed to focusing on just two out of the three). As referenced above, only universities and colleges are eligible to be the primary applicant for these proposals; however, NIFA encourages applicants to work with other stakeholders across the food system to create more collaboration across disciplines and participant categories. The RFA also emphasizes the solicitation of project proposals that work to engage farmers and the next generation of farmers.

NSAC will work to publish more information on this new research area as it evolves. Anyone interested in learning more about AFRI overall can visit our grassroots guide for more information.

Categories: Grants and Programs, Research, Education & Extension

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