FFAR board to ask for flexibility in grant allocations | TheFencePost.com

FFAR board to ask for flexibility in grant allocations

The Hagstrom Report

Marcia DeLonge of the Union of Concerned Scientists urges the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research to undertake projects in agroecology as, from left, Sally Rockey, the FFAR executive director, and board chairman Mark Keenum and member Pam Johnson listen.

The board of the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research, will ask Congress for more flexibility in how it allocates funds for research projects as well as for an additional $200 million in research money in the next farm bill, Mark Keenum, the Mississippi State University president who chairs the board told The Hagstrom Report after an open board meeting on Oct. 6.

FFAR was set up to combine federal and private research money, and provided $200 million with instructions to raise an equal amount of non-federal dollars.

Under the current law, when the foundation commits an amount of federal dollars to a research project it must raise an equal amount for that project, Keenum said. The foundation has followed that practice in its first years in operation, but found that sometimes a private-sector organization will offer more than a matching amount while it's hard to raise matching money for other projects, said Keenum, a former aide to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss.

The foundation would still raise a total amount in matching funds equal to the $200 million, he said, but it proposes to be able to use a higher percentage of federal funds on some projects.

The current law limits the foundation's support of some organizations and ideas "even if they are very laudable," Keenum said.

Keenum made the statement a day after he and Pam Johnson, an Iowa farmer who is a past president of the board, met with Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and the staff of Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

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Roberts and the Stabenow staff both offered support for the foundation, but would make "no hard commitments of dollars." The lawmakers said that the board has to "face the realities of the budget," Keenum added.

Johnson noted that she also met with Iowa Republican Sens. Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst. "We are cultivating support from those champions who have supported agricultural research," she said.

The board meeting featured short presentations from speakers who suggested the foundation become engaged in just the sort of projects for which it may be difficult to raise money.

Robert Campbell, director of nutrition assistance and budget policy for Feeding America, urged the foundation to conduct research on the relationship between reducing food waste and feeding hungry people.

Marcia DeLonge, the senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the foundation should do research on agro-ecology because that area is underfunded.

Kanika Gandhi, a policy specialist with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, urged the foundation to undertake research projects to help the underserved with ideas "as defined by those within those communities."

Michael Stein, a policy associate at the Organic Farming Research Foundation, noted the organic industry is expanding dramatically worldwide but research for it is way behind conventional agriculture, and there needs to be more research on cover crops, soil quality and carbon sequestration.

David Welch, director of science and technology at the Good Food Institute, said FFAR needs "an additional line of inquiry" — research into plant-based foods and clean meat, which is defined as growing meat from cells rather than in animals.

Elliot Roth, the founder and CEO of Spira, a Washington, D.C.-based company that grows algae, said most of FFAR's grants so far have gone to big organizations that "swallow them up," and there is a need for small grants to entrepreneurs who are working on cutting-edge research.

"There is currently little money available for this kind of research," Spira said.

From the audience, Jack Bobo, the chief communications officer for Intrexon, which makes the genetically modified Arctic apple, said there is not a failure of innovation in agriculture, but a failure of communication.

Consumers don't see the benefits of genetic modification and there needs to be a conversation with consumers so they do not reject technologies before they know them, he said.

Sally Rockey, the executive director of the foundation, said she did see common themes in the presentations, but the speakers answered an "open call" for comments at the board meeting. Rockey said other speakers had spoken on other topics at previous meetings.

In a formal presentation, Rockey said the foundation has made 39 grants so far and expects to allocate all $200 million provided by the 2014 farm bill and the matching money it has raised by the end of the year.

Rockey highlighted the following research projects the foundation has supported:

» National cover crop initiative, with the Noble Research Institute.

» National Academy of Sciences Prize in Food and Agriculture Sciences, established with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

» Realizing increased photosynthetic efficiency.

» Food waste and loss on farms, with the World Wildlife Fund, the Walmart Foundation and the Global Food Chain Alliance.

» Improving Leafy Greens Initiative to stress plans to promote nutrition and taste without long-term breeding at Aero Farms in New Jersey.

Rockey also noted FFAR is engaged in projects to "capture" high school students who want to work in agricultural science and make grants to young college faculty to encourage them to stay in agriculture.

The foundation is also one of the funders of the National Academies of Science "Breakthroughs 2030" project that is supposed to find "moonshots" in agriculture. The report is to be released next April, but the breakthroughs are likely to be in greener plants, greener animals, reducing food waste, a safer food supply and pathways for resilience, Rockey said.

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