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The importance of the Farm Bill’s Research Title is hard to overstate. It may not have a direct impact on people’s lives as the food assistance programs and farm programs do, but it is a crucial driver in the long-term direction of U.S. agriculture. Its impact goes far beyond the USDA research institutions and also drives research at land grant universities and many other entities.

Through the enactment and implementation of the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress and this current Administration have made some positive changes to how the U.S. Department of Agriculture approaches research, and has provided more opportunities for exploring more holistic, systems-level research questions. One of the positive developments has been the development of USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). AFRI funds research, education, and extension grants that address key problems in sustaining all of agriculture, from production to human nutrition.

USDA recently provided an opportunity for the public to comment on how it conducts the granting of funds through AFRI. We at IATP see opportunities for improvement, and focused on these issues in our comments:

  1. Prioritize research areas that are not adequately addressed by private research. One of the areas that appear underfunded are specialty crops, which include fruits and vegetables. Though as a group they account for roughly $60 billion in annual sales, or roughly half of all national agricultural products sold, specialty crops are the focus of only 14% of public research expenditures. The public health benefits resulting from even a small shift toward more specialty crop consumption in the American diet could be dramatic.
  2. Set aside funding for research that will explicitly support disadvantaged farmers. The financial and institutional barriers that have historically inhibited farmers of color from participating in USDA programs are well known (hot link to the disadvantaged farmers what’s at stake?). And it appears that cultural barriers continue to create barriers for farmers of color to take advantage of funding opportunities in proportion to their numbers. IATP recommends that USDA dedicates a portion of AFRI funding to projects that explicitly support agricultural systems and crop varieties commonly used by disadvantaged farmers, and that a new system of peer review should be established where funding decisions are determined by a panel of farmers from socially disadvantaged populations.
  3. Provide smaller grants for more innovative project ideas. While large, collaborative research projects are definitely needed to help integrate food and agricultural systems, by their very nature of their size these projects tend to be clunky, inflexible, and less tolerant of risk. Focusing too heavily on these large projects reduces the opportunity for truly innovative research. IATP recommends that AFRI dedicate at least 40% percent of program funds to particularly innovative projects under $1 million.

Public policies around food and agriculture research can have a profound impact on the foods we grow and eat, even if research developments don’t bear fruit for decades. It can be difficult to pay attention to these issues in the complex array of acronyms (like my personal favorite, NAREEEAB) and funding mechanisms, but this is an important step in making public research benefit all of the public.

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