New USDA Research Grants Show Promising Focus on Food Systems

October 14, 2021
Hemp grain has the potential to be a sustainable feed ingredient for nutrient-dense fishPexels
Sarah Reinhardt
Senior Analyst, Food Systems and Health

Correction (10/20/21): A previous version of this blog failed to acknowledge all grant recipients designated as Minority Serving Institutions, including Asian American Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and Native Hawaiian-Serving Institutions.

Last week, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced funding to the tune of $146 million for new research projects in sustainable agriculture. According to NIFA (the US Department of Agriculture’s major science grantmaking agency), the new funding will support a wide range of critical science, “from addressing labor challenges and promoting land stewardship to correcting climate change impacts in agriculture and critical needs in food and nutrition.”

As we wrote last month, multidisciplinary research at the intersection of food production, climate and environment, and nutrition (defined as “sustainable nutrition science”) could hold the key to solving some of our most pressing public health challenges—but until recently, there has been little federal funding to support it. A UCS analysis estimated that in recent years a mere $15.7 million was awarded to projects incorporating all three of these areas of research, out of an average annual $73.2 billion in total federal research investments. What’s more, fewer than one in three of these sustainable nutrition science projects named health disparities as important to the project or aimed to address inequities of any kind.

But if the pool of projects that received funding in the recent announcement are any indication, the tides may be turning.

Sustainable agriculture research takes a stronger interest in nutrition

As one might expect based on the program description, all 15 of the funded projects have a focus on sustainable agriculture, from diversifying crops in the corn belt to developing algae-based feed for cattle. But in a sign that the program is successfully encouraging more systems research, 40 percent of the projects (six out of 15) also address concerns related to food production and human nutrition, including food safety, food security, and diet quality.

One such project examines the potential of hemp grain as a sustainable feed ingredient for nutrient-dense fish. Though seafood is touted as an important part of a healthy diet, questions about how to produce enough seafood sustainably loom large—meaning research like this could contribute an important piece of the sustainable diet puzzle. A second project aims to address global nutrition security challenges by employing a “Soil to Society pipeline” strategy to identify sustainable crop varieties that can produce more nutritious, affordable, and accessible whole grain foods.

In addition to knowing what research is being funded, it’s also important to know whose research is being funded. One third of the grants were awarded to institutions designated as Minority-Serving Institutions, including three Asian American Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions (one of which is also considered a Hispanic-Serving Institution); one Native Hawaiian-Serving Institution; and one Historically Black University partnering with a Tribal College. This is significant—particularly given that minority-serving institutions make up only about 14 percent of all degree-granting institutions—and speaks volumes about the value and expertise of the researchers at these institutions. But the work here isn’t done. It’s essential that future requests for proposals place greater emphasis on soliciting projects that serve and support historically marginalized populations, including Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC).

Help maintain the momentum for sustainable nutrition science

Want to learn more about how the USDA is leveraging research and education to strengthen the intersection between climate change, food systems, and nutrition security? Click here to register for a webinar next Wednesday, October 20, to hear NIFA staff present and answer questions about their latest research aims and initiatives.

And while we’re at it—the USDA isn’t the only federal agency engaging the public on these topics. Last month, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) also issued a Request for Information on research opportunities to advance hunger, food and nutrition insecurity, focusing on “multidisciplinary research spanning the investigational spectrum from cells to selves to societies.” In other words, the country’s leading health sciences agency is interested in funding nutrition research with real-world applications, from sustainable agriculture to healthy food access. (Sound familiar?)

We’ll be weighing in on all of these critical issues, including the need to prioritize funding that supports BIPOC scientists, institutions, and communities, and you can, too. Find out more on the NIH website about how to submit your response by the November 1st deadline.