January 7, 2011
On Friday, January 7, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) released the first of seven 2011 requests for applications (RFA) for the Agriculture, Food and Research Initiative (AFRI) competitive grants program. AFRI is the largest of the NIFA competitive grants programs, which also include smaller specialized programs for sustainable agriculture, organic farming, and integrated pest management among others.
This first AFRI RFA is for the so-called “foundational program” that address the six statutory priority areas for the program as enumerated by the farm bill — plants, animals, food safety/nutrition/health, energy/natural resources/environment, agriculture systems and technology, and agricultural economics and rural communities.
Later RFAs will detail the five so-called “challenge areas” including childhood obesity prevention, climate change, food safety, global food security, and sustainable bioenergy. The seventh RFA is specific to doctoral and post-doc awards.
The total funding available for foundational program awards is projected to increase from $62 million last year to $78 million for 2011. All funding for this and other discretionary USDA programs will ultimately hinge on what the new Congress does with FY 2011 appropriations. The current continuing resolution keeping all programs alive at their FY 2010 levels expires March 4.
The deadlines for proposals for each individual subprogram within the foundation program are available on the AFRI website.
NSAC has been urging the agency to allow integrated research, education and extension projects within foundational programs wherever appropriate. AFRI’s predecessor programs had always made decisions about whether to request integrated projects or research-only projects based on the merits, but last year the program ruled out integrated proposals for foundation programs across the board. We are pleased to report that at least with respect to the Agricultural Economics and Rural Communities priority area, integrated projects will once more be allowed.
NSAC is also pleased that our strong recommendation that rural entrepreneurship, designated as a new AFRI priority in the 2008 Farm Bill, be included as a separate subprogram within AFRI has also been accomplished. The subprograms within this priority area are now Small and Medium-Sized Farms, Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development, Rural Development, Markets and Trade, and Environment. The first three of those five will be integrated projects, while the last two will be research-only.
NSAC and many other groups have been requesting for many years that AFRI designate a subprogram for conventional plant breeding and for conventional animal breeding, consistent with their designation as AFRI priorities in the 2008 Farm Bill and with directives from Congress in the last seven agricultural appropriations bills. In the preamble to the RFA, NIFA notes that the new RFA is more inclusive of authorized priorities, including conventional plant and animal breeding, weed science, and food technology.
While the language related to conventional plant breeding is clearer in this year’s RFA, including specific reference to cultivar development, it remains a subhead within a newly named “Biology of Agricultural Plants” subprogram that also includes genomics and biotechnology. This combined approach has proven very problematic in the past, such that few if any conventional breeding projects are ever awarded.
The new RFA’s “Animal Breeding, Genetics, and Genomics” subprogram has the same difficulty and the conventional breeding language in the RFA is even less specific than the crop section. Also disappointing is the absence of any requests for animal projects on antibiotic resistance, despite repeated requests from NSAC and other organizations for research on this major agriculture and public health issue.
Within the Natural Resource area, the Management in Agroecosystems program continues, with an emphasis on developing innovative management practices to expand ecosystem services in actively managed ecosystems, including social, economic and behavioral barriers to adoption.
Farm entry, transition, and viability remain subtopics within the Small and Medium-Sized Farms subprogram. The new Entrepreneurship program calls for business development strategies to promote the sustainability of small and medium-sized farms and rural communities.
AFRI is participating in special multi-agency requests for proposals this year, including a joint project with the National Science Foundation on Disaster Resilience for Rural Communities, with the National Institute of Health on Biomedicine and Agriculture, and with Department of Energy on Plant Feedstock Genomics.
We will alert readers to further AFRI developments as more information becomes available.