Challenge Areas

NIFA supports research, education, and extension in six national challenge areas. These challenge areas include food security, climate variability and change, water, bioenergy, childhood obesity, and food safety. This page provides details on each of these areas and their strategic goals.

Food Security

Strategic goal: Advance our nation’s ability to achieve global food security and fight hunger

As the United States moves toward a global economy, the goals of agricultural science have broadened to include increasing food security through development of sustainable food production systems. Food security — ensuring that people have consistent access to quality food — is dependent on individuals and organizations working together to develop solutions to related economic and social issues. 

NIFA programs are helping strengthen food security through development of productive and sustainable agricultural systems. Our initiatives pursue technical solutions to the challenges facing agriculture and the environment while addressing the interactions of people and communities. Conventional and organic agriculture programs focus on developing sustainable systems-based approaches to livestock and crop production as well as increasing communities’ self-reliance in meeting their own food needs. In addition, our programs seek to strengthen biosecurity and emergency preparedness procedures.

Climate Variability and Change

Strategic goal: Advance the development and delivery of science for agricultural, forest, and range systems adapted to climate variability and to mitigate climate impacts

Ongoing climate change — a trend of significant fluctuations in major weather patterns and conditions brought about by increased greenhouse gases — is one of the most pressing issues facing the planet. Although a natural slow change is unavoidable, rapid and dramatic shifts in climate cause more severe impacts, such as droughts, floods, and unpredictable rain patterns; increased temperatures and more frequent heat waves; and higher sea levels and increased water temperatures. These conditions can damage agriculture, forest, and rangeland ecosystems and reduce agricultural productivity. 

NIFA supports activities that help agricultural and natural-resource systems adapt to climate variables such as droughts, floods, and temperature extremes. Our programs focus on challenges that are fundamental to sustainable agricultural production and the management of healthy forests and rangelands. Planned long-term goals include developing plant and animal varieties that can withstand climate change, increasing carbon sequestration, reducing greenhouse gases, and advancing the sustainable use of natural resources.


Strategic Goal: Optimize the production of goods and services from working lands while protecting the nation’s natural resource base and environment

Both urban and rural communities depend on a safe and reliable water supply. For the wide range of water’s uses—from irrigation, to drinking, to manufacturing processes — sustainable sources are vital to life, industry, and energy production. Agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of consumptive use in the United States and depends on reliable sources of water.

However, in the face of competing demands, the nation’s water resources face issues of availability and quality. NIFA programs are developing sound water and watershed management practices, such as modern conservation technologies, appropriate crop choices, and drought preparedness, in order to help farmers enhance water use efficiency and conserve resources.


Strategic Goal: Contribute to U.S. energy independence and enhance other agricultural systems through the development of regional systems for the sustainable production of optimal biomass (forests and crops) for the production of bioenergy and value-added bio-based industrial products

One means of addressing global economic, social, and environmental challenges lies in creating a thriving bio-economy — a marketplace based on renewable biomass, bioenergy, and sustainable agricultural crops. The production of bioenergy and bio-based products helps secure the nation’s energy future by reducing the dependence on non-renewable energy. Bioenergy production creates new economic opportunities and new jobs, promotes rural prosperity, and fosters the sustainability of natural resources.

NIFA is working to secure America’s energy future through production of sustainable bioenergy, biofuels, and bio-based products. We approach bioenergy from an integrated regional perspective by bringing together researchers, landowners, communities, and private industry. NIFA initiatives focus on building energy independence through advances in crop development and production and commercialization of conversion technologies.

Childhood Obesity

Strategic goal: Combat childhood obesity by ensuring the availability of affordable, nutritious food and providing individuals and families science-based nutritional guidance

Over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled, and today, nearly one in three children in America are overweight or obese. In African American and Hispanic communities, the percentage — at 40 percent — is significantly higher. If this problem is not solved, one third of all children born in 2000 or later will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lives. Many others will face chronic obesity-related health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and asthma.

NIFA supports programs intended to reduce overweight and obesity prevalence among children and adolescents. We provide funding and leadership to conduct educational programs and support research to gain new insights into causes and prevention. NIFA initiatives help parents foster environments that support healthy choices for children and provide teenagers with the guidance and information they need to learn healthier eating habits.

Food Safety

Strategic goal: Reduce the incidence of food-borne illness and provide a safer food supply

Each year, millions of Americans suffer — and thousands die — from foodborne illnesses. Safeguarding the nation’s food supply requires that the food supply be regulated and monitored according to science-based principles. Ensuring food safety covers a broad range of processes: from farm production to processing, distribution, storage, selection, preparation, and consumption.

NIFA’s food safety programs seek to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness while improving the safety of the food supply. We support efforts to reduce disease-causing micro-organisms, toxins, and chemical contaminants; improve food processing technologies; find alternatives to the use of antibiotics in animals; and devise mitigation strategies for antimicrobial resistance.