In July 2008, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), and Department of Energy (DOE) asked the National Research Council’s Board of Life Sciences to convene a committee to examine the current state of biological research in the United States. The committee produced a set of recommendations, called “New Biology for the 21st Century,” that would isolate and address broad and challenging societal problems. Issues ranged from generating food plants to grow sustainably in changing environments to expanding sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels. 

As part of the effort to address these challenges, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) established a competitive grant program to provide funding for fundamental and applied research, extension, and education in food and agricultural sciences. The program, called the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), works in six priority areas: 

1) plant health and production and plant products;

2) animal health and production and animal products;

3) food safety, nutrition, and health;

4) renewable energy, natural resources, and environment;

5) agriculture systems and technology; and

6) agriculture economics and rural communities.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced earlier this week the availability of $262 million in AFRI funds to address five key societal challenges. The news, delivered by USDA chief scientist and director of USDA’s Nation Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Robert Beachy, surprised some experts, as the allotted funds are larger in size and longer in duration than awards in previous years. In addition, some grants will be eligible for renewal upon completion.

The five challenge areas are:

1) childhood obesity and prevention;

2) climate change;

3) food safety;

4) global food security; and

5) sustainable bioenergy.

The Secretary may award the grants to State agricultural experiment stations; colleges and universities; university research foundations; other research institutions; Federal agencies; national laboratories; private organizations or corporations; or individuals. The grants, Beachy said, are expected to establish collaborations among multiple institutions and organizations and will integrate basic and applied research with deliberate education or extension programs.  

“By focusing our resources on achievable and measurable outcomes, USDA’s investment in science will help address some of America’s–and the world’s–most intractable problems,” said Beachy. “Today’s announcement demonstrates USDA’s commitment to supporting research, education, and extension to bring about true change in areas like climate change, obesity, and bioenergy.”

More information is available on the NIFA Website: