Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research announces first projects

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, Oct. 28, 2015 - The newly formed Foundation for Food and Agricultural held its first public meeting Wednesday, announcing two projects - one aimed at honoring emerging researchers and another that will create a “rapid response” program targeting new threats.

The projects will be funded from a $200 million congressional allocation intended to catalyze agricultural research, which FFAR Executive Director Sally Rockey said is in need of major attention.

“Agriculture and food research is traditionally underfunded, so there's a lot of pent-up needs for really innovative science in agriculture,” Rockey told Agri-Pulse. “Trying to pinpoint where the activities of a foundation like ours, which strives to generate a private-public partnership, is going to have an impact is something we have to work through. We have to work with the USDA very closely so our projects are complementary and not duplicative to them.”

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Rockey added that how the way projects are chosen by the foundation, which was created by the 2014 farm bill, will be “one of the most important aspects of what we do.”

The New Innovator in Food and Agriculture Research award will recognize scientists in the early stages of their careers who are conducting research in FFAR's target areas, which include improving plant efficiency, optimizing agricultural water use, transforming soil health, and spurring food system innovation.

“The idea here is really to allow those individuals to be somewhat unbridled or unfettered to pursue really innovative research without having to worry about their next source of funding,” Rockey told gathered stakeholders.

The Rapid Response program will collaborate with USDA to identify and provide “nimble response” to “emerging and critical issues,” Rockey said. Something like the avian influenza outbreak that was responsible for the depopulation of more than 48 million birds this spring would have been an example of an emerging issue had the program been in existence at the time, she said.

“Often times . . . if we were able to be there at the onset, we'd be able to better control (threats),” Rockey said. “Often times, they emerge, we don't know that they've happened, and by the time we're able to deploy some resources to do some critical pieces of research that would help us attach the problem, it's too late.”

Rockey said the projects are still being finalized and will likely be ready for implementation in early 2016. Two more program announcements are expected in the coming weeks.

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The FFAR board of directors is chaired by former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, who, when asked about the big-picture goals of the foundation, invoked the name of one of agriculture's most legendary researchers.

“I view one of the biggest (goals) is to have a whole generation of new agriculture researchers over the next 20 or 30 years who can be the new Norman Borlaugs, that can really kind of change the world,” he said, referring to Borlaug's work with wheat that's been credited with saving a billion lives. However, he also said that a great deal could be accomplished through incremental improvements brought about through FFAR's research.

Rockey said she hopes to spend the $200 million allocation over the course of five years. FFAR is not intended to replace traditional agricultural research funding channels, but rather to attract matching funds through public-private partnerships.

A former chief information officer at USDA, Rockey came to the Foundation from the National Institutes of Health where she was director of the Office of Extramural Research.

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