Federally funded agricultural research and development (R&D) programs play a critical role in equipping the U.S. agricultural sector with the tools, technologies, and strategies needed to weather current and future challenges. The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), an independent non-profit funded by the federal government, is a relatively recent addition to USDA’s existing suite of agricultural R&D programs but has quickly proven to be a key driver of innovation.
FFAR was established by the 2014 Farm Bill as a private-public partnership, setting the initiative apart from other federal research programs such as the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) – USDA’s flagship competitive grants program – and the USDA’s in-house Agricultural Research Service. FFAR fosters collaborative partnerships among research institutions and industries to match funding from Congress with funding from private sources such as industry groups, nonprofits, foundations, and academic institutions. To date, FFAR reports it has raised $1.40 for every dollar of federal revenue. By more than doubling the impact of federal funds, FFAR delivers a powerful return on taxpayer investment.
Collaboration is a key tenet of FFAR’s approach to garnering funding as well as its process for identifying research priorities. FFAR works jointly with a diverse array of stakeholders to identify research opportunities that will help to address food and agriculture challenges in climate mitigation, nutrition, and biosecurity. Given its focus on collaboration, FFAR is uniquely positioned to help align private and public research priorities to reduce redundancies. FFAR is then able to invest in actionable scientific innovation to develop tools, technologies, and information for unaddressed, large-scale challenges. Furthermore, by engaging many stakeholders in the research process, the innovations developed are closer to deployability, with more immediate benefits for farmers, consumers, and the environment.
What Research Does FFAR Support?
FFAR was established to address critical agricultural research gaps in an effort to complement the USDA’s basic and applied research activities while also having the flexibility to address new and emerging agricultural research needs.
Concept prioritization and eligibility
FFAR identifies these emerging research needs after reviewing existing federal intramural and extramural agricultural research, education, and extension programs to minimize duplicative research efforts. FFAR currently funds research across several challenge areas, including:
- Soil Health
- Sustainable Water Management
- Next Generation Crops
- Advanced Animal Systems
- Urban Food Systems
- Health-Agriculture Nexus
FFAR develops research programs within each of its challenge areas through a set development process. First, FFAR engages with the USDA, commodity and farm groups, and research organizations to generate program concepts. Program concepts are then evaluated by an advisory council of external scientists, agriculture practitioners, and other stakeholders and ultimately cleared by FFAR’s Scientific Program Committee before becoming an FFAR program.
Eligibility for FFAR research grants varies by funding opportunity, but U.S. institutions of higher education, nonprofit, and for-profit organizations, government-affiliated researchers, as well as domestic and international organizations, are generally eligible to apply.
Support for research and workforce development
Since launching its inaugural programs in 2016, $366 million in FFAR funding has been allocated through 275 awards. Research funding is awarded by competitive grants, direct contracts or prizes, and challenges.
FFAR research has contributed to innovations in plant and animal health, food safety, and health, food security, and agriculture systems and technology. FFAR estimates that over 40 percent of FFAR projects develop actionable tools for immediate on-farm and industry use.
FFAR also supports several long-term, large-scale climate mitigation efforts and awards about 29 percent of its total funds to mitigation projects, much of it to soil carbon sequestration projects. Notably, a greater share of its total funding (1.4%) is allocated to projects related to enteric methane compared to other federal agencies and programs.
Recently awarded grants for FFAR projects can be explored on FFAR’s website. A few notable examples include:
- Enteric methane emissions – Robust R&D on commercially-feasible technologies that reduce enteric methane emissions is needed to move the beef and dairy sectors toward net zero emissions. In 2022, FFAR announced it would match industry contributions up to $2.5 million for the Greener Cattle Initiative, a five-year effort to find ways to reduce enteric methane emissions from cattle. Another FFAR grant supports the development of the world’s first seed bank and ocean cultivation techniques for a type of red seaweed shown to dramatically reduce enteric methane emissions when fed to cattle. Implementation of technologies that specifically address enteric methane emissions has significant potential to improve the carbon footprint of the beef and dairy sectors.
- Biotechnology and gene editing – Under its Next Generation Crops challenge area, FFAR has awarded grants to improve communications around the use of gene editing tools to improve sustainable agriculture, identify genes promoting heat and drought resilience in wheat, and develop accessible gene editing technology that moves beyond major large-acre crops and allows faster plant growth. Biotechnology and gene editing technologies play an important role in maximizing the climate mitigation potential of genetically engineered crops.
- Precision agriculture technology – FFAR awards grants across several challenge areas that aim to maximize the economic and environmental benefits of on-farm adoption of precision agriculture technologies. One recently awarded grant provides funding to improve precision irrigation tools for specialty crop growers in the Western U.S.
In addition to funding research projects that address urgent food and agriculture challenges, FFAR also invests in the future scientific workforce. To this end, FFAR offers fellowship and award programs that recognize scientific leaders, support young faculty, and inspire the next generation of scientists.
How is FFAR Funded?
FFAR was established by Congress in the 2014 Farm Bill. The foundation received $200 million to increase investment in agricultural research with the requirement that FFAR matches every federal dollar with non-federal investments from the awardee or a third party. The 2018 Farm Bill provided $185 million in funding over five years and maintained the same matching requirement. Farm bill funding for FFAR is mandatory, meaning funds stipulated for the foundation are not subject to annual appropriations decisions.
The graph below details the total funding FFAR has received from federal funds and matching investments.
While FFAR is an inventive and effective tool for the USDA to grow the funding pool for agricultural research, research priorities are to some extent driven by the interests of private industry. The success of FFAR’s funding model hinges on the solicitation and acceptance of private donations, one-third of which comes from private industry. For this reason, FFAR was not established to supplant other, existing USDA research programs or agencies that do not exclusively rely on public-private partnerships. As federal agriculture innovation funding continues to lag in the United States, the need to bolster funding for all types of agricultural research remains imperative. Breakthrough regularly seeks out legislative opportunities to boost agricultural R&D funding for federal programs to fight climate change and reduce agriculture-related emissions.
- FFAR was established by Congress in the 2014 Farm Bill and has received $385 million in federal funds to date. As the first and only public-private partnership model for public agriculture research, FFAR leverages investments from federal and private sources to support cutting-edge science and address today’s most pressing food and agriculture challenges.
- Designed to fill critical gaps in the USDA’s research agenda, FFAR invests in agricultural research spanning several challenge areas, including soil health, next-generation crops, and advanced animal systems.
- Past FFAR research – on enteric methane reduction in the livestock industry, improved climate resiliency in crops, and increased adoption of input-saving precision agriculture technologies – has resulted in direct benefits for U.S. farmers and the environment.