October 17, 2012
On Monday, October 15, USDA announced the availability of $136 million in funding for basic and applied research as the “foundational program” portion of its Agriculture, Food, and Research Initiative (AFRI).
The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is the federal agency that has overseen and administered this grant program since its creation in the 2008 Farm Bill.
This recent funding announcement comes after a full year’s delay in the release of the Request for Applications (RFA) for Fiscal Year 2012 funding for AFRI’s Foundational Program. Since no RFA was issued for FY12, the RFA that was made available earlier this week includes funding for both FY12 and FY13.
This means that there is a substantially larger pot of research funding that is available in this round of applications. That’s the good news. The bad news is the long delay also means the turn around time for submitting letters of intent (LOI) is incredibly short, less than a month in some cases. Once again, bureaucratic delay is made up for by shorting the application window.
The programmatic areas and funding and due dates are as follows:
Some Good News
The “Agriculture Economics and Rural Communities” area of the RFA is strong and there are some improvements worth noting. This program area will award $19 million in grants in this double funding cycle to fund research on small and medium-sized farms, rural entrepreneurship, rural development, economics and environmental externalities. There are new references to research on the development of local and regional food systems, the economic impacts of local markets on food supply, and programs that assist beginning, small and medium-sized farms.
Despite the improvements made to the Ag Economics and Rural Communities program area, this RFA by and large falls short of seriously addressing the urgent and complex research needs related to building a more sustainable agriculture and food system.
One of the biggest disappointments in this year’s RFA is the deletion of two of the three priorities within the Renewable Energy, Natural Resources, and Environment Program Area which in prior RFAs have solicited research on innovative practices and sustainable agriculture systems work. It appears the solicitation is now more focused on mitigation of industrial agriculture’s pollution problems rather than on sustainable, ecologically-based solutions.
Consistent with previous RFAs, there is also no mention of “organic agriculture” in any of the program areas, which is especially disappointing this year, as the sole federal research program that funds organic research – the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) – has officially expired with the expiration of the farm bill on October 1. Even if OREI comes back, there is no excuse for this omission.
Also, despite earlier promises by the agency, there is no research being solicited on antibiotic resistance.
There is mention in passing of conventional plant breeding, but not animal breeding. Congress has sent USDA repeated directives to place a major emphasis within AFRI on conventional plant and animal breeding and cultivar and breed development, but the RFA once again fails to comply with congressional intent.
Some Need Not Apply
Since the creation of AFRI in the 2008 Farm Bill, NSAC has been advocating for increased funding opportunities for integrated research, education, and extension projects, and to allow a variety of interested stakeholders to apply for these funds, including non-profit organizations and other institutions who work directly with farmers. However, despite multiple campaigns, letters, and stakeholder input, this issue remains unresolved in this latest RFA which continues to restrict “integrated projects” to only academic institutions, in stark contrast to the agency’s statutory requirements.
This is an unfortunate missed opportunity that would allow a wider variety of research partners to participate in these multifaceted projects which aim to not only conduct research, but actually get that research out to the field where farmers and other stakeholders can benefit.
More to Come
NSAC will be providing a more in-depth analysis of this year’s RFA for the AFRI Foundational Program when we submit public comments to USDA with recommendations for improving subsequent RFAs.
At this point, we note with enthusiasm that the Agricultural Economics and Rural Communities area has a good request and one we hope will be answered with strong proposals from the field. We also note our overall disappointment in the RFA as a whole. We will elaborate on the good, the bad, and the ugly in a future post.
For more information on the AFRI Foundational RFA, including deadlines for letters of intent and final applications, click here.
To read the stakeholder comments NSAC submitted in advance of this year’s RFA, click here.