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U.S. Department of Agriculture

Agency Budgets, CHAPTER NINE

Elizabeth Allred, Eddie G. Gouge, Ian L. Maw

In this chapter:


  • Funding for the Agriculture and Food Research Institute (AFRI) is proposed at an historic level of $450 million in FY 2016.
  • The budget proposes creation of two additional public-private partnership Innovation Institutes within the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), one in biomanufacturing/bioproducts development and another in nanocellulosics from plants.


Research and development (R&D) efforts in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) seek to bring the benefits of discovery and innovation to the kitchen table of American families. USDA identifies and advances solutions to everyday challenges such as creating a more nutritious, safe, and affordable food supply; conserving the nation’s natural resources and monitoring climate change; and developing new energy resources. Deciding how to prioritize funding for these important efforts represents a definite challenge in assisting, ultimately, American families.

To create additional context for the challenge of prioritizing multiple demands with limited resources, one can consider how R&D is funded in USDA. Total proposed funding in FY 2016 for USDA, for all department programs, is $148 billion. Of this total, only $25 billion would be for discretionary programs, under which falls R&D. Research and development, however, would only account for about 12.0 percent, or $2.9 billion, of total USDA proposed discretionary funding and about two percent of the total proposed for USDA as a whole. What this means is that difficult choices must be made when identifying strategic priorities. This chapter will seek to highlight these priorities and funding available for them.

See Table II-13: USDA R&D funding details



Harvesting at the ARS Sugarcane Production Research Unit in South Florida | Credit: USDA Flickr

Programs in USDA, including for R&D, seek to improve the economic health and well-being of rural America while augmenting the productivity and ensuring the safety of the nation’s food and agriculture system. Confronting the challenge of developing and applying new technologies in a changing environment requires cutting-edge research.

Since FY 2014, USDA has identified five strategic goals that provide the framework for all programmatic and funding priorities. Four of the goals directly impact research and development activities. The fifth focuses on management efficiencies within USDA itself and, therefore, is not applicable to the discussion in this chapter.

Strategic Goal One: Assist rural communities to create prosperity so they are self-sustaining, repopulating, and economically thriving. Under NIFA, the President’s budget proposes $80 million for two additional public-private partnership Innovation Institutes. These efforts would connect industry, government, and universities to leverage funding and promote technology transfer. Institute efforts would focus on (1) biomanufacturing and bioproducts development and (2) nanocellulosics from plants. Also under NIFA, the President’s budget includes a request for $450 million in competitive grants funding for AFRI. Research efforts would include:

  • Development and sustained production of regionally appropriate biomass feedstocks for production of non-food biobased products,
  • Chemical intermediates, and
  • Alternative jet fuel.

Strategic Goal Two: Ensure our national forests and private working lands are conserved, restored, and made more resilient to climate change, while enhancing our water resources. Through AFRI competitive grants program funding, research would focus on developing solutions for water management that could affect health, food, climate, energy, and the environment. Funding in the amount of $19 million would also be provided to the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) to conduct research on climate change risk to agriculture. An additional $1 million would be targeted in the Economic Research Service (ERS) to study connections between shifting water supplies, farming practices, and food production. The plight of the honeybee continues to receive attention, and the FY 2016 budget proposes $79 million to be used in consultation with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal partners to continue to address the decline of honeybee health. 

Strategic Goal Three: Help America promote agricultural production and biotechnology exports as America works to increase food security. Through AFRI competitive grants program funding, research would focus on promoting agricultural production through the development of varieties and breeds with improved resilience to climate change, drought, and extreme weather; increased production of crops and livestock from diseases and pests; and enhanced nutritional composition.

Strategic Goal Four: Ensure that all of America’s children have access to safe, nutritious, and balanced meals. Under ARS, a request has been made for an increase of $17 million for antimicrobial resistance. To support this effort, an additional $2 million would be provided to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) to augment related survey work. Under NIFA, an additional $28 million would be funded through AFRI to develop, refine, and disseminate science-based knowledge about animal health management and production practices to reduce the threat of antimicrobial resistance.

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The Agricultural Research Service uses growing tunnels to develop strawberry cultivars | Credit: USDA/Stephen Ausmus

The majority of USDA’s research efforts are managed under the mission area of Research, Education, and Economics (REE). REE efforts support critical research that allows for the discovery of new knowledge which is then delivered to the general population through education and outreach (extension) programs. This new knowledge and understanding allows for innovation and improved practices that ensure a safe, sustainable, and competitive food, fuel, and fiber system that leads to individuals and communities that are sound economically, nutritionally, and environmentally.

The Research, Education, and Economics mission area houses several agencies that conduct or support USDA’s principal research and development activities: Agricultural Research Service (ARS), National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Economic Research Service (ERS), and the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).

To provide context to these research activities, the bulk of USDA’s agricultural research is carried out in two agencies: the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). As a point of interest, 44 percent of REE’s $3.2 billion budget proposal would go to ARS, 47 percent to NIFA, three percent to ERS, and six percent to NASS. This chapter will only discuss ARS and NIFA.

In addition, this chapter will also review the Forest and Rangeland Research program housed in the Forest Service (FS).

Agricultural Research Service (ARS)

ARS is the in-house research arm of USDA and along with NIFA serves as a major producer of the nation’s agricultural research. The agency also houses the National Agricultural Library (NAL) that serves as the nation’s primary resource in food, agriculture, and natural resource sciences. ARS develops new scientific knowledge, transfers technology to the private sector, and provides access to scientific information data.

In FY 2016, ARS lists the following categories as its priority initiative areas. Proposed increases or new funding requests are noted below:

  • Better management of microbes and combating antimicrobial resistance ($17 million increase),
  • Climate change ($19 million increase),
  • Genetic improvements and translational breeding ($11 million increase),
  • More competitive, sustainable small farms and beginning farmers ($7.5 million increase),
  • Vertical farming ($5 million requested to establish this program), and
  • Pollinator health initiative ($7 million increase).

Major research programs and FY 2016 budget requests include:

  • New products/product quality/value added: $101.6 million,
  • Livestock production: $94.4 million,
  • Crop production: $233.1 million,
  • Food safety: $116.2 million,
  • Livestock protection: $90.5 million,
  • Crop protection: $194.4 million,
  • Human nutrition: $85.2 million,
  • Environmental stewardship: $206.2 million, and
  • National Agricultural Library (NAL): $24.7 million.

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National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) administers AFRI funding as well as the historic federal/state partnership between USDA and the nation’s land-grant institutions – both 1862 institutions and the historically black 1890 land-grant institutions – and funding to the tribal colleges (1994 institutions) and Hispanic-serving institutions. Through an extensive network of research, education, and extension programs, NIFA is able to deliver newly-discovered knowledge, new practices, and innovation to the practitioners that work in the agriculture, food, fuel, and fiber system. This partnership and these programs are a unique feature of the U.S. food and fiber system that is copied all over the world. The ability to direct cutting-edge research from the laboratory to the classroom and finally onto the kitchen table through education and extension programs is one of the major reasons that U.S. agriculture has been on the forefront of global best practices.

A significant and historical funding mechanism for the federal-state partnership between USDA and the land-grant system comes from what is known as “capacity funds.” Capacity funds are non-competitive awards given to each land-grant institution to maintain and sustain the research infrastructure to accomplish their respective research missions. These funds are based on a statutory formula and are used to address ongoing research needs that are often state or region specific.

The Hatch Act provides capacity funds for the agricultural experiment stations based at America’s land-grant colleges and universities. While capacity funds are valued, the Administration – as well as past Administrations – prefers to target the AFRI competitive grants program for the significant funding increases. Even though the Hatch Act is recommended for level funding again in FY 2016 at nearly $244 million and the Evans-Allen Program is recommended at $58 million, the President’s budget proposes to allocate an additional $12.5 million and $2.5 million (to be awarded competitively) through Hatch and Evans-Allen funding respectively for national and regional problems in food, agriculture, natural resources, nutrition, human sciences, and animal health.

In the FY 2016 budget proposal, NIFA would receive $1.5 billion in discretionary funding which includes the request for AFRI.

Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). The premier agricultural research program of the United States, AFRI awards grants based on a competitive, peer-reviewed process. The FY 2016 budget requests an historic funding level of $450 million which represents a 38.5 percent increase over FY 2015’s level of $325 million. For better context on the historic nature of this proposed funding level, AFRI was funded at $262 million in FY 2010 and $276 million in FY 2013.

AFRI conducts both fundamental and applied research that addresses critical issues in agriculture such as:

  • Global food security and hunger,
  • Water resources,
  • Sustainable bioenergy production,
  • Climate variability and change,
  • Childhood obesity prevention,
  • Food safety, and
  • Education and literacy initiative.

Sixty percent of the grants awarded must be for fundamental research with 40 percent for applied research. In the area of fundamental research grants, at least 30 percent of the awards will be given to multidisciplinary teams.

Public-Private Partnerships for Innovation Institutions. Seeking to leverage more abundant opportunities created by the dynamic of a partnership with industry, USDA’s FY 2016 budget request includes $80 million that would support two new Innovation Institutes. The focus of one institute would be on biomanufacturing by building the scientific foundation, processes, and workforce capacity to move bio-energy and bio-based research from development to deployment and commercialization. The other institute would focus on nanocellulosics to effectively realize the potential of this nanomaterial, find commercial applications in a wide variety of industrial sectors, and support the President's National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).

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Forest Service (FS)


Klamath National Forest | Credit: USDA/Lance Cheung

The Forest Service houses the world’s largest forest research organization. Research is conducted at five research stations, the Forest Products Laboratory, and the International Institute of Tropical Forestry located in Puerto Rico; with approximately 500 scientists at 67 sites located throughout the United States. FS R&D provides scientific information and new technologies to support sustainable management of the nation’s forests and rangelands across all of the United States and its territories (including both federal and non-federal lands). These products and services increase the basic biological and physical knowledge of the composition, structure, and function of forest, rangeland, and aquatic ecosystems. Research is directed toward sustaining healthy watersheds, forest products, wildlife protection, outdoor recreation opportunities, and other benefits. Experimental forests and rangelands are maintained at 81 locations and in every major forest ecosystem type in the United States; these provide a resource for long-term data (more than 50 years in many cases) to forest researchers worldwide.

Forest and Rangeland Research. This program is tasked with developing new knowledge and technology to enhance the economic and environmental value of the 193 million acres of the National Forest System. The President’s FY 2016 budget proposes $292 million for research in areas such as:

  • Enhancing the economic and environmental value of the nation’s forests,
  • Forest disturbance prediction and response,
  • Watershed management and restoration,
  • Urban natural resource stewardship, and
  • Inventory and analysis, including first time data collection in the interior of Alaska.

In addition, the FY 2016 budget proposes funding to continue efforts to stimulate the creation of commercial and industrial markets of undervalued forest resources.