The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI)
The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), America's flagship agricultural competitive grants program, supports the nation's best and brightest scientists as they find solutions to our most pressing societal and global challenges.
AFRI-supported research and extension efforts play a critical role in enabling our nation to respond to the significant problems and challenges that face the United States and other countries. These problems include ensuring an abundant supply of safe water for agricultural uses, advancing innovation, adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change, restoring soil health, improving food safety and quality, preventing childhood obesity, promoting the bioeconomy, and elevating America’s competitiveness internationally.
AFRI is NIFA’s flagship competitive grants program for funding research, education, and extension projects that address key agricultural, food, and natural resource problems of national, regional, and multi-state importance. AFRI supports foundational and translational research across all key areas of agriculture, including farm efficiency and profitability, renewable energy, forestry, aquaculture, rural communities and entrepreneurship, human nutrition, food safety, biotechnology, and plant and animal breeding.
In FY 2016, Congress appropriated $350 million to the AFRI program, an increase of $25 million from 2015. AFRI projects focused on the six agricultural priorities of the Agricultural Act of 2014:
- Agricultural economics and rural communities;
- Agricultural systems and technology;
- Animal health and production and animal products;
- Bioenergy, natural resources, and environment;
- Food safety, nutrition, and health; and
- Plant health and production and plant products.
AFRI-funded science is vital to meet the food, fiber, and fuel needs of a global population that is projected to surpass 9.7 billion by 2050. For details on the program, please view the most recent AFRI Annual Review.
The following exemplify successful impacts resulting from NIFA’s investment in AFRI programs.
AGRICULTURAL ECONOMICS AND RURAL COMMUNITIES
SUPPORTING OUR NATION'S VETS - Two million U.S. military veterans are younger than 35, with nearly 45 percent of them coming from rural America. Most have expressed interest in returning to their communities, and census data indicates that the Southern region welcomes the largest concentration of veterans. With multi-year support from a $500,000 AFRI grant, the University of Arkansas led a team of experts from University of Missouri, Appalachian State University, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and the Farmer Veteran Coalition in developing targeted mentoring programs for beginning farmers and ranchers that emphasize business practices, such as a “veteran-grown” label program, to create marketing opportunities. In 2016, 30 participants went to veteran-owned Across the Creek Farm and learned production operations, including business planning and financial decisions that impact the farm. The grant pays for vets’ attendance at workshops, boot camps, and free online courses.
Agriculture Systems and Technology
SAVING PRECIOUS WATER RESOURCES - NIFA is investing in research that enhances food production, processing, and distribution that benefits consumers and rural communities. Water conservation is a critical, global issue for human use and agricultural production—approximately 80 percent of the consumptive use of water is in agricultural food production. A team of Cornell University researchers improved the efficiency of irrigation by measuring how much water stress can be tolerated without adversely affecting crop yield or quality. They did this by developing a water sensor that is inserted into plants to continuously measure water levels within the plant. These low-cost chips efficiently provide real-time, sensitive water measurements that inform growers on irrigation management. With the sensor, farmers are able to adjust their irrigation schedules to various weather anomalies that affect water transpiration in plants. As a result, farmers may be able to reduce their water-use footprint and increase profits by saving money on their water bills.
ANIMAL HEALTH AND PRODUCTION AND ANIMAL PRODUCTS
GENETICS HUMANELY DEHORN DAIRY CATTLE - Advances in the field of genomics help breeders produce desirable varieties of crops and livestock, as well as overcome challenges that had previously been undertaken via conventional breeding. For example, most cattle in the dairy industry are mechanically or chemically dehorned, or polled, early in life to protect against injury to other cattle and their handlers. To eliminate this traumatic process, a team of NIFA-funded researchers at Recombinetics, Inc., in St. Paul, Minnesota, successfully used a $435,000 AFRI grant to develop a gene editing process that introduces the hornless gene into the cells of horned bulls. While the majority of hornless cattle generated via conventional breeding produce low-quality milk, gene editing offers a simple and rapid solution to generate hornless cattle that produce milk of higher quality.
Bioenergy, Natural Resources, and Environment
POWERING FLIGHT, FROM WOOD TO WING - On Nov. 14, 2016, Alaska Airlines flew the first commercial flight from Seattle, Washington, to Washington, District of Columbia, powered, in part, by a new renewable fuel made of wood waste. This flight was the culmination of a five-year, $39.6 million AFRI research and education project, the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA), led by Washington State University. Launched in 2011, NARA advanced research into biofuels and biochemicals, fostered the Northwest regional biofuel industry, and helped educate tomorrow’s workforce on renewable energy. The harvested residues used to make fuel for this flight came from forests owned by the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe in Washington and the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes in Montana. The resulting biofuel, created by industrial partner Gevo, is chemically indistinguishable from jet fuel derived from fossil fuel. NARA is one of seven NIFA-funded regional bioenergy Coordinated Agricultural Project (CAP) grants that are attempting to help industries break our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and reduce their carbon footprint.
Food Safety, Nutrition, and Health
DELIVERING A HARD BLOW AGAINST NOROVIRUS - Norovirus, often known as stomach flu, is so good at infecting humans that it’s been called the perfect human pathogen, so virulent that a person can become sick within a few hours of consuming as few as 20 virus particles. In the United States alone, there are about 21 million cases each year that result in more than 800 deaths. The NoroCORE team, led by North Carolina State University, is a multi-disciplinary collaborative of 30 researchers who are leaders in the fields of basic, food, and environmental virology from 25 universities. Their goal was to reduce the burden of foodborne illness associated with viruses. NIFA supports the project with a $25 million CAP grant. In 2016, NoroCORE team members at the Baylor College of Medicine announced that they had successfully cultured the human norovirus in intestinal cells. This goal had eluded scientists for over 48 years. This discovery can lead to advances in the development of vaccines, therapeutics, and other measures to control the virus in humans and also affect management of norovirus transmission.
PLANT HEALTH AND PRODUCTION AND PLANT PRODUCTS
SEPARATING DEVASTATING WHEAT BLAST PATHOGEN FROM LOOK-ALIKES - An epidemic of wheat blast, a crop disease caused by the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae triticum (MoT), struck Bangladesh in spring 2016. Wheat blast can result in 30-100 percent crop loss. To limit such food security calamities in the United States, researchers from Kansas State University, University of Kentucky, and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service joined forces to create a sensitive new assay method to detect the fungus. With support from two AFRI grants totaling $5.4 million, the researchers devised a method to home in on a specific region of the fungus’ genome that distinguishes it from look-alike strains. In tests, it accurately distinguished all known strains of MoT from more than 280 specimens of M. oryzae collected around the world. The method yields results in less than 24 hours and is sensitive enough to detect even trace amounts.