What is the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative?

AFRI Explained: What AFRI Does and Why it Matters

What is the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative?

The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) is the USDA’s flagship competitive research program for the agricultural sciences. AFRI research, extension, and education grants enable researchers across the country to make progress on pressing agriculture-related issues, facilitate the transfer of research findings to producers, and support the continued development of a skilled food and agricultural workforce.

Agricultural research and development (R&D) programs like AFRI are critical to addressing agronomic, environmental, and public health challenges such as climate mitigation, nutrition, and biosecurity. As US farmers continue to face variable climate conditions, R&D is a vital component of ensuring that food, fiber, and fuel demands are met in the coming decades. To support U.S. farmers in producing more on less land and with less greenhouse gas emissions, federal investments in emerging technological innovations are imperative.

What is AFRI?

AFRI was established as part of the National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA) in the 2008 Farm Bill and was most recently reauthorized in the 2018 Farm Bill. As the largest federal program providing competitive grants for fundamental research, applied research, extension, and education in food and agriculture, AFRI is a critical source of funding for a wide array of institutions, including universities, government agencies, and private companies. Fundamental research grants account for 60 percent of AFRI’s funding. AFRI grants must, where appropriate, be consistent with the aim to develop sustainable agriculture systems, and the Farm Bill directs AFRI’s grantmaking activities to focus on the following priority areas:

  • Plant Health and Production and Plant Products
  • Animal Health and Production and Animal Products
  • Food Safety, Nutrition, and Health
  • Bioenergy, Natural resources, and Environment
  • Agriculture Systems and Technology
  • Agriculture Economics and Rural Communities

Dedicated research programs guide AFRI’s work across these priority areas. The Foundational and Applied Science (FAS) program is the largest and invests in projects focused on making plant and animal production systems more sustainable, productive, and economically viable. AFRI also awards grants through its Education and Workforce Development program and the Sustainable Agriculture Systems (SAS) program.

AFRI’s SAS program explicitly links the need for both sustainable agricultural intensification and agricultural climate adaptation by funding projects from transdisciplinary teams focused on systems approaches that promote transformational changes in US food and agriculture. The program seeks to advance projects with the long-term goal of increasing American agricultural production while reducing its environmental footprint.

Eligibility to receive integrated AFRI grants that combine research, education, and extension are restricted to only colleges and universities. Single function projects (research, education, or extension only) are available to a wider range of entities, including state agriculture experiment stations, colleges and universities, federal agencies, national laboratories, and private and nonprofit organizations. In 2019, 43 percent of awarded grants went toward integrated research projects.

What research does AFRI support?

Since its creation in 2008, AFRI has distributed more than $3 billion to advance research, education, and extension projects nationwide and has funded over 5,000 project applications.

Past AFRI research has resulted in direct benefits for agricultural producers and the environment across conventional, organic, and urban agricultural systems. Recently funded AFRI projects can be found on the NIFA’s website. A few notable examples spanning a variety of topic areas include:

  • Sustainable meat and dairy production – AFRI grants have funded research on innovations with the potential to cut the carbon footprint of U.S. meat and dairy production. For example, the University of Missouri received AFRI funding to genotype and phenotype over 8,000 cattle from eight major U.S. beef breeds. The project identified variation in the primary genes responsible for improved feed efficiency with the goal of improving the greenhouse gas emissions and economic sustainability of beef operations through marker-assisted cattle selection.

    Methane-reducing feed additives are another innovation with climate mitigation potential for the U.S. beef industry. An AFRI SAS grant funded a study at Colby College regarding the efficacy, safety, feasibility, and consumer perceptions of algae-based feed additives for U.S. dairy cattle. The project aims to intensify U.S. dairy production by improving milk yields and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Alternative protein production – Tufts University received $10 million in AFRI SAS funding to establish the National Institute for Cellular Agriculture. The project aims to enhance food sustainability, nutrition, and food security through cultivated meat production. Increased federal investment in similar research projects focused on plant-based meat and cellular agriculture research will be crucial if the U.S. hopes to lead the world in the emerging global alternative protein market. Through increased research and innovation, a scaled U.S. alternative protein industry stands to both foster economic development across the value chain and provide climate mitigation potential.

  • Fertilizer use efficiency – The University of Wisconsin-Madison received AFRI funding to better understand and improve the process of nitrogen fixation in a specific corn variety found in Mexico. Results could have applications for developing commercial corn varieties that require less fertilizer application to increase food production and reduce nitrogen runoff, all without augmenting land use.

  • Precision agriculture – North Carolina State University received $10 million in AFRI SAS funding to support a coalition of university, non-profit, and government scientists across 35 institutions to increase commodity crop profitability, resilience, and sustainability by enhancing the effectiveness of cover crop-based conservation tillage systems and associated technologies.

How is AFRI Funded?

AFRI is authorized in the Farm Bill and funded through discretionary spending, subject to annual appropriations by Congress. While the 2018 Farm Bill reauthorized AFRI to be funded at $700 million a year, the program has always been given substantially less.

The graph below details historical funding levels for AFRI through FY22.

AFRI Historical Fudning FY16 FY22

In response to AFRI being funded below its authorized level, the AFRI Coalition, of which Breakthrough is a member, brings together research institutions, scientific societies, and other food and agricultural stakeholders in support of increased investments in AFRI each year. The coalition advocated for Congress to fund AFRI at its full $700 million annual authorization level in the fiscal year 2023. Beyond its participation in the AFRI Coalition, Breakthrough regularly seeks out additional legislative opportunities to boost agricultural R&D funding to fight climate change and reduce agriculture-related emissions.

Key Takeaways

  • AFRI’s broad portfolio of competitive grants supports research, extension, and education at state agriculture experiment stations, colleges and universities, federal agencies, national laboratories, and private and nonprofit organizations. Funded projects focus on 6 priority areas established by the Farm Bill and seek to advance solutions related to climate change adaptation and mitigation, farm efficiency and profitability, food safety and traceability, supply chain resiliency, biotechnology, rural economic prosperity, and a diverse research workforce.

  • Past AFRI research has resulted in direct benefits for agricultural producers and the environment across conventional, organic, and urban agricultural systems. U.S. farmers and ranchers facing increasingly variable climate conditions stand to reap important benefits from AFRI research with the potential to improve their adaptability, productivity, and competitiveness on the global scale.

  • AFRI is authorized in the Farm Bill and subject to annual appropriations by Congress. While the 2018 Farm Bill reauthorized AFRI to be funded at $700 million a year, the program has always been given substantially less.