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Huge Research Investments Seek to Advance Sustainable Agriculture

October 4, 2019


Diverse crops in big field credit SARE noncommercial only
Diverse crops in big field. Photo credit: SARE

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced a nearly $80 million investment into a new research initiative that will fund long-term, ground-breaking research needed to transition our current agricultural sector into a more sustainable and resilient system. These federal research grants are the first of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s (AFRI) new Sustainable Agriculture Systems (SAS) program that will focus on systemic approaches to challenges facing sustainable food production.

This competitive grant program was first announced in 2018 and aims to 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.” It replaces other AFRI research initiatives ( known as “challenge areas”) on childhood obesity; food safety; climate variability and change; bioenergy; and water. The new consolidated program only funds integrated projects that include research, education, and extension to solve the challenges of a world approaching a population of 10 billion by 2050.

Only eight awards were made, which demonstrates the narrower focus of this new program. While focusing on fewer, but larger projects in the SAS program has the possibility of funding longer-term research, the narrow focus limits the breadth and diversity of research topics and related farming systems addressed. However, larger-scale, longer-term research can generate valuable data that can help inform agricultural systems and practices in meaningful ways.

Research Highlights

The eight awardees of approximately $10 million each include: the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville; Western Illinois University; Kansas State University; New Mexico State University; North Carolina State University; Pennsylvania State University; Texas A&M University; and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Despite initial concerns about the narrow scope of this new programs, this initial round of research grant showcases an impressive array of projects focusing on research topics of particular importance to sustainable agriculture – including increasing nutrient efficiency and soil health, increasing the sustainability of beef production, and advancing urban agriculture.

Highlights include the following projects:

University of Wisconsin – Grassland 2.0 Agroecological Transformation to Perennial Grassland Agriculture.

Wisconsin researchers (including NSAC Members – Michael Fields Agriculture Institute and the Wallace Center) aim to transform agriculture in the North Central Region from grain-based to perennial grass-based livestock production. They seek to restore much of the ecosystem structure and function of the region’s native prairies by replacing annual crops in the North Central U.S. with perennial grasslands. Some of the agroecological metrics of grass-based livestock this project will explore are superior profitability, nutrient and water efficiency, and yield stability. The project will incorporate a stakeholder process to inform the development of both a greater supply and demand for grass-fed products. Technical and financial tools will be provided to help grass-based operations transition. Innovative policy incentives will be developed to enable producers to transition, along with farmer and public education.

Pennsylvania State University – Thriving Agricultural Systems in Urbanized Landscapes

To create economically thriving and environmentally beneficial agricultural systems in urbanized landscapes, a team of researchers at Penn State seek to increase agricultural production and improve water and nutrient use efficiency in order to prove that economically sustainable, value-added agriculture in urbanized landscapes can be achieved while enhancing ecosystem services. The project will work with various stakeholders throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed to engage urban markets local, organic and traceable food products, and to implement education, extension and evaluation plans that create a community of practice around urban agriculture.

North Carolina State University – Enhancing the Sustainability of US Cropping Systems through Cover Crops and an Innovative Information and Technology Network

This project proposes to accelerate the use of cover crops nationwide to address challenges in agriculture including declining soil health, water scarcity, climate variability, and others. Components of this research will include developing technologies to improve cover crop performance, inform management and identify impacts on productivity, stability, and ecosystem services. The project will also determine the effectiveness of cover crop ecology as a model for integrating participatory research and practice by focusing on knowledge flow among cover crop researchers, educators, extension, and farmers.

Kansas State University – Increasing Water Productivity, Nutrient Efficiency and Soil Health in Rainfed Food Systems of Semi-Arid Southern Great Plains.

Researchers at Kansas State University have assembled an interdisciplinary team to address the problems of worsening droughts, monoculture, and poor soil health in cropping systems across the Southern Great Plains – which are dominated primarily with wheat production. The project will test three different production systems that will employ intensified and diversified crop rotations with novel crops. The project will develop strategic management for diversification and intensification of cropping systems, tactical management for improved mid-season input decisions, empower stakeholders to use the resulting information and technologies, and create educational and recruitment opportunities to train next-generation managers and researchers.

Texas A&M University – Enhancing Livestock Production from Rangelands in the Great Plains

Texas researchers plan to establish seven research and demonstration centers across the Great Plains for this project that will demonstrate the benefits of strategic use of goats and fire as best management practices for rangeland production. The centers will focus on how effective “pyric herbivory” and mixed-species grazing can be, and test and implement fire-forecasting models for region-wide use. Long-term goals include improving rangeland conditions and reducing woody plant coverage across the Great Plains.

A list of all eight awarded projects can be found here.

Impacts Yet to Be Seen

Overall, the eight awarded projects are all long-term (25 year) projects designed to address specific challenges in agriculture that impact environmental, societal and production issues. The abstracts provided only present cursory details on each project with most including education and extension components with little detail on how engagement and outreach to farmers will actually be implemented.

The projects include a mixed bag of research ideas and projected outcomes that may not go far enough to achieve high-risk, high-reward components that can result in cutting-edge results that are truly novel and innovative. Many components of these research projects remain undefined and unidentified, so time will tell how effective these awards will be in making transformative changes to current agricultural practices, including those that have any measurable impact on climate change.

Additionally, NIFA provides little to no details on who the project collaborators are and whether these institutions will be engaged with historically underserved institutions and communities. Given the large investments, it is critical that projects also address concerns faced by beginning and underserved farmers, as well as rural communities. It is unclear whether these projects will be able to do so.

The Request for Applications for the 2019 SAS program was announced this spring, with an estimated $90 million for nine awards. The application deadline was September 26, 2019. There is little change between the 2018 and 2019 RFAs, but applicants will be required to describe the metrics they will use to measure progress of their proposed projects. The 2019 RFA also includes a focus on research to improve plant and animal breeding and rural communities.

Yet concerns linger. NSAC has submitted comments on the SAS program outlining the need to prioritize research around long-term challenges of climate change resiliency, farm sustainability, and rural communities. Given the very large award amounts and the restriction on eligibility (only universities and colleges are eligible to be the primary applicant for these proposals) there are inherent inequities within the program which benefit higher-capacity institutions that already have access to financial and networking resources. Greater outreach and support is needed for smaller institutions, including historically underserved institutions.

NSAC will continue to solicit feedback on these awards and publish more information as the program continues to evolve. Anyone interested in learning more about AFRI overall can visit our Grassroots Guide for additional information.


Categories: Carousel, Grants and Programs, Research, Education & Extension


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