Federal research and development (R&D) programs play an important role in developing and deploying solutions to meet growing climate challenges facing agriculture and food systems. The Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority (AgARDA) is a pilot effort designed to generate and deploy advanced agricultural technologies, research tools, and qualified projects and products. AgARDA aims to ensure that the United States can maintain and enhance its position of global leadership as new agricultural and environmental challenges emerge.
Congress authorized the creation of AgARDA in the 2018 Farm Bill. It directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use the same “advanced research projects agency (ARPA) model” that formed the basis of DARPA to accelerate innovative research in the field of agriculture. However, the agency has yet to be established due to the limited funding allocated by Congress to date.
Failure to fully fund AgARDA leaves significant research gaps unaddressed. ARPA-style research agencies support multi-year research projects and are endowed with the flexibility to shift their budgets in reaction to emerging research areas. The Departments of Defense, Energy, and Health all benefit from their own ARPA agencies, like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
The USDA, though, has no dedicated advanced research agency, which has meant that high-risk, high-reward research projects that are too nascent for private industry run the risk of going unfunded. Once established with sufficient funding, AgARDA would operate as a large-scale investment tool to fill this research gap.
What Research Would AgARDA Support?
Congress authorized AgARDA to address a particular research gap: multi-year, advanced research and technology transfer initiatives that do not fit well into the existing federal research programs and agencies. Specifically, AgARDA is authorized to provide assistance for technologies, research tools, and qualified projects and products in the following areas:
- Engineering, mechanization, or technology improvements that will address challenges relating to growing, harvesting, handling, processing, storing, packing, and distribution of agricultural products
- Plant disease or plant pest recovery countermeasures to intentional or unintentional biological threats
- Veterinary countermeasures to intentional or unintentional biological threats
Once established, AgARDA will bring together interdisciplinary research teams to accelerate research on topics that fall within these three priority areas. By supporting high-risk, high-reward research, the agency could fund research on underfunded innovations with high climate mitigation potential. AgARDA could also play a role in protecting the U.S. food system from threats like novel crop and livestock diseases.
How Will AgARDA Generate High-Impact Discoveries?
Compared to other USDA research programs, AgARDA’s high level of autonomy in determining research objectives and its streamlined process for awarding funds would allow it to react quickly to new research opportunities. Whereas other USDA research programs and agencies are overseen by an advisory board with congressionally mandated seats for industry and academic stakeholders, ARPA agency directors typically report solely to their respective secretaries – in the case of AgARDA, the Secretary of Agriculture – who retain only minimal oversight. This flat organizational structure provides agency directors with more discretion over research objectives, cuts bureaucratic red tape, and ultimately allows directors to be action-oriented and ambitious in their consideration of out-of-the-box ideas.
AgARDA’s distinct proposal request process would further enable the agency to develop focused research objectives that are potentially transformative. Whereas the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) – the USDA’s flagship competitive grants program – issues broad requests for applications where researchers submit proposed research questions, ARPA-style requests for proposals (RFPs) provide the answer to a pressing challenge and then solicit proposals from researchers on how to achieve it. For example, in 2010, the “Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage in Transportation" (BEEST) program at the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E solicited projects to develop a variety of rechargeable battery technologies that would enable electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles to meet or beat the price and performance of gasoline-powered cars. By posing a hypothetical solution as the end goal, ARPA-E’s RFPs ensured that researchers would propose narrow, high-impact responses that are laser-focused on de-risking or identifying ambitious new technologies.
In general, DARPA and ARPA-E fund projects just long enough to determine feasibility, typically three to five years. Successful research teams often then go on to receive follow-on private sector investment. Several success stories have spun out of ARPA-E. For instance, the BEEST program awarded $1.5 million to one project at Stanford University that went on to receive $500 million in investment from Volkswagen to produce EV batteries for industrial production. The company had an estimated value of $3.3 billion when it announced its initial public offering in 2020.
As research programs get underway, AgARDA’s flexibility would allow researchers to move projects forward at a rapid pace while also allowing for priority changes along the way. As demonstrated by ARPA-E, program directors can monitor all projects within a program to identify ways for researchers to adapt or adjust priorities toward aspects of their projects with the most promise over the course of a research program.
Without AgARDA, much of this high-risk, advanced research will never be funded. Other USDA research programs—such as AFRI and the Agricultural Research Service (ARS)—deliberately weed out risky projects. AgARDA will be able to take more fliers.
Meanwhile, although ARPA programs at the Departments of Defense and Energy do sponsor some agriculture-related research, they are bound to departmental missions. For instance, the primary goal of ARPA-E is to enhance the economic and energy security of the United States through the development of energy technologies, limiting its programmatic scope to projects with direct implications for generating, storing, and using energy. Therefore, other ARPA agencies are unlikely to make challenges at the intersection of food, nutrition, and climate a top priority. Establishing AgARDA is the most promising path forward to ensure the federal government prioritizes advanced agricultural research.
How is AgARDA Funded?
AgARDA was created by the 2018 Agriculture Improvement Act (Farm Bill) as a five-year pilot program. While Congress authorized $50 million in appropriations through fiscal year 2023, AgARDA has only received $1 million in funding to date to build out the agency’s planning and management structure and hire staff.
A successful AgARDA pilot could lead to the establishment of a permanent AgARDA program, providing the USDA with a designated agency to support cutting-edge discoveries in agriculture. However, AgARDA’s low level of funding since 2018 has limited the agency’s ability to deliver on its mission.
Fully funding AgARDA at its $50 million authorization level – and soon – is especially important because the kinds of grants ARPA-style programs typically provide are large; for example, a medium ARPA program targeting a specific issue has a $35 million budget.
ARPA-style programs also have a higher failure rate compared to other research funding agencies. Higher failure rates signal that ARPA-style programs are, in fact, succeeding in addressing the critical research gaps they are designed to fill. The relatively high failure rate at existing ARPA agencies, like DARPA, is buoyed by the important successes achieved amidst a high total number of projects funded. Yet underfunding the $50 million pilot for AgARDA runs the risk of constraining the size and riskiness of projects an early stage AgARDA could undertake.
The Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program provides an example of success in leveraging a large, targeted budget. Since its inception in 2009, ARPA-E has funneled $3.06 billion in R&D funding to transformational energy technology projects, and 190 of those projects have gone on to attract $10.3 billion in private-sector follow-on funding. ARPA-E-funded research on energy storage, efficiency, and transportation has resulted in major breakthroughs in the field. For example, ARPA-E awardees have doubled the record for a rechargeable lithium-ion battery’s energy density and pioneered a near-isothermal compressed-air energy storage system.
Only with increased, consistent funding will AgARDA be able to serve as a much-needed source of competitive grant funding for universities, national research laboratories, and agricultural innovation companies. Without an advanced research projects agency conducting agricultural research, high-impact innovations are at risk of stagnating or becoming commercially available too late to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
- AgARDA was authorized by the 2018 Farm Bill for $50 million per year in funding but, as of fiscal year 2022, the agency has received only $1 million and has not established a strategic plan.
- AgARDA is a pilot research effort that prioritizes long-term, high-risk agricultural R&D projects that are outside the scope of other USDA research programs and unlikely to attract private investment because of the technological or financial uncertainty.
- As an ARPA-style agency, AgARDA will flexibly address significant, transdisciplinary questions through large but targeted budgets. Its flat organizational structure, streamlined awards process, and high level of autonomy in establishing research priorities will set AgARDA apart from existing USDA research programs and allow the new agency to tackle advanced challenges.
- AgARDA aims to develop and deploy agricultural technologies, research tools, and qualified projects and products that 1) increase economic opportunities and security for farmers, ranchers, and rural communities, 2) enhance export competitiveness, environmental sustainability, and resilience to extreme weather, and 3) ensure that the US maintains and enhances its position as a leader in global agriculture research.
- In coordination with other stakeholders, in 2021, Tri-Societies developed a Roadmap for AgARDA at USDA. This document offers a potential implementation plan for the agency at USDA, outlining the importance of standing up AgARDA with signature characteristics of successful ARPA agencies.