NSAC's Blog

Will $90 Million in Funding Hit the Mark for Sustainable Ag?

July 8, 2020

Agricultural researcher takes notes in the field.

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has announced its 2019 awardees of its $90 million flagship Sustainable Agriculture Systems (SAS) program. First announced in 2018, the SAS program specifically focuses on systemic approaches to the challenges facing sustainable food production. As part of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s (AFRI) offering, SAS’s second installment of awards intends to support long-term ground-breaking research needed to transition our current agricultural sector into a more sustainable and resilient system. However, many of the projects awarded fail to focus on the main tenets of sustainable agriculture.

Nine projects from eight institutions received awards for research ranging from improving practices in poultry production and food safety, to efficient water use, nutrient management, and improvements in the value chain of biofuel production.

The nine successful projects are:

  • Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa – $10 million
  • University of California, Riverside, California – $10 million
  • University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut – $10 million
  • University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho – $10 million
  • University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland – $10 million
  • University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland – $10 million
  • University of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota – $10 million
  • West Virginia University, Morgantown, West Virginia – $10 million
  • Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan – $9.8 million

The SAS program is a competitive grant program, first announced in 2018, created 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.” The SAS program funds integrated projects that include research, education, and extension to solve the challenges of a world approaching a population of 10 billion by 2050. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), “this investment in innovative sustainable agricultural practices supports USDA’s vision outlined in the USDA Science Blueprint and USDA’s Agriculture Innovation Agenda” that were announced earlier this year.

Like the 2018 awarded SAS projects, the program’s focus is on fewer, but larger projects with longer-term research, and hopefully, more durable impact. The small number of awarded projects does limit the breadth and diversity of research topics and related farming systems addressed. However, this may be a necessary trade-off to support larger-scale, longer-term research that can generate valuable data to help transform agricultural systems and practices in meaningful ways. This approach makes careful project selection essential if the grants are to address the practical needs of farmers and producers working to farm more sustainably.

Research Highlights

Sustainable, Systems-Based Solutions For Ensuring Low-Moisture Food Safety – Michigan State University

This project aims to reduce foodborne illnesses and recalls linked to “low-moisture foods,” improving public health and the supporting value-added producers of all sizes. Researchers identified four themes (1) human factors (2) pathogen behavior and control, (3) personnel development and decision-support systems (extension and education), and (4) integrated risk and sustainability analyses, through which they will conduct research and outreach to examine risk, economic, and sustainability analyses, food safety culture assessments, and pathogen control solutions. As part of this work, the research team will host multiple workshops, webinars, and resources supporting systems-based food safety improvements.

Improving Agricultural Water Use And Nutrient Management To Sustain Food And Energy Crops Production In The Corn Belt – University of Maryland

Researchers at the University of Maryland intend to accomplish four main objectives in this broad-scope research: (1) engage agricultural producers and water managers to collaboratively design, test, and implement a dynamic and a web-based information delivery system, (2) build a coupled science modeling system to represent interactions among climate, agriculture, land/water use, and economic/ environmental impacts, (3) produce reliable forecasts to support real-time and mid-range decisions to optimize crop productivity, profitability, and environmental quality, and (4) integrate research and extension into to teach, train future leaders in agricultural water use and nutrient management. The overall goal is to increase productivity and profitability while reducing input costs and environmental degradation.

Developing And Deploying A Perennial Grain Crop Enterprise To Improve Environmental Quality And Rural Prosperity – University of Minnesota

Focusing on the commercial-scale perennial grain crop (intermediate wheatgrass), Kernza, this project will “advance breeding and genetics, enhance agronomic knowledge, improve environmental quality, engage education, extension, and policy, and develop supply chains and economic drivers to activate transformational change in agriculture that improves the environment and rural prosperity.” Overall, researchers hope to develop new Kernza varieties that are adapted to various regions across the U.S. while optimizing yield, protecting water quality, and establishing new supply chains and products. 

View all nine of the awarded projects with their abstracts here.

The Future of Sustainable Agriculture

While the intent of the SAS program is to support systemic approaches to overcome hurdles affecting the future of sustainable agriculture, many of the funded projects seem to stray from the principles of sustainable agriculture. The research projects awarded include those that will strive to address inputs into large scale factory farming while ignoring the inherent unsustainable nature of factory farming systems; increase reliance on artificial intelligence and digital automation – technology that is still far from reach for many small and mid-sized farmers; as well as projects that do not account for the continued degradation of soil and water quality or the impacts on rural economies.

Additionally, many components of these research projects remain undefined, so time will tell how effective these awards will be in making transformative changes to current sustainable agricultural practices. Given the size of the awards, NSAC remains concerned that the SAS program will focus on driving agricultural practices away from holistic, sustainable systems that prioritize conserving our soils, water, wildlife habitat, and energy resources. In keeping with the feedback we provided to NIFA for the FY 2018 SAS RFA, NSAC strongly encourages NIFA to prioritize research around plant and animal breeding, soil and water resources, climate change resiliency, and farm sustainability and rural communities.

SAS Background

First initiated in 2018, the SAS program aims to transform the U.S. agriculture system in sustainable ways. Awarded projects must be aligned with AFRI’s six priority areas, as defined in the 2018 Farm Bill: plant health and production; animal health and production; food safety, nutrition, health; bioenergy, natural resources, environment; agriculture systems and technology; and agriculture economics and rural communities. Projects can focus on bioenergy, aquaculture, rural communities, human nutrition, food production, food safety, classical breeding, among others.

While the FY2020 SAS RFA has not yet been released, eligible applicants must first provide a letter of intent, and only projects that are integrated (must include research, education, and extension) are considered.

NSAC will publish more information as the program continues to evolve, and more information becomes available. Anyone interested in learning more about AFRI overall can visit our Grassroots Guide for additional information.

Categories: Grants and Programs, Research, Education & Extension

One response to “Will $90 Million in Funding Hit the Mark for Sustainable Ag?”

  1. Large scale factory farms are the problem, not the solution.
    SAS must avoid counterproductive programs.