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NIFA grants universities $14m to find COVID-19 scientific solutions

TAGS: Policy
Grants to help universities find rapid response scientific solutions amid pandemic.

To keep science discovery, innovation and education moving forward, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA) developed a series of COVID-19 Rapid Response funding opportunities targeted to the most critical issues facing university researchers, small businesses and consumers across America during the coronavirus pandemic. NIFA announced that the agency has awarded nearly $14 million in this nationwide effort so far, with more projects to be funded in the next few months.

“It was quickly evident at the onset of the pandemic that the food supply, agricultural systems, families and education – key focus areas for USDA and our partners – would be greatly impacted by all the changes facing our society,” NIFA acting director Parag Chitnis said. “USDA-NIFA is uniquely positioned to help fund rapid response research, outreach and education efforts while continuing to support our base research, extension and 4-H youth development programs that are in place at all times to respond to producer and consumer needs, large and small, across the nation.”

Over the past few weeks, NIFA has awarded close to $13 million across 17 grant projects through the Agricultural & Food Research Initiative (AFRI) and another 14 grants for $1.3 million through the Small Business Innovation Research Program to support research and development across all areas of agricultural research, education and small business innovation addressing the pandemic. NIFA expects to announce another round of AFRI-funded projects in October.

This new support adds to NIFA's capacity funds already in place in every state and communities to make it possible for land-grant universities, tribal colleges and their agricultural experiment stations and cooperative extension services. These funds support the people and facilities that make up the network of grassroots support providing local farmer and rancher education and advice, community development and resilience tools, health and nutrition expertise and 4-H and youth development opportunities.

“In emergencies like this, trusted resources and expertise are available to Americans -- particularly in the rural areas -- through local extension offices,” Chitnis said. “Extension agents have personal connections with people and communities.”

In mid-March, university-based researchers and educators stepped up to rapidly respond to the urgent need for new links in the U.S. food and agriculture supply chain and updated economic models for trade and food production while moving an array of education classes -- from university instruction to 4-H programs -- to a virtual teaching space.

By expanding the AFRI program to include an additional focus area -- COVID-19 Rapid Response to Novel Coronavirus Impacts Across Food & Agricultural Systems, the agency offered funding opportunities for projects of up to $1 million in the areas of: the health and security of livestock; the well-being of farm, foodservice providers and rural Americans; economic security, and food safety. Funded rapid response programs address critical and urgent solutions to the pandemic’s impact on the nation’s food and agricultural system are being rapidly implemented and directly address urgent needs in the stakeholder community.

Scientists received grants to develop antiviral coatings to inactivate SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen responsible for causing COVID-19, in food manufacturing and livestock production and to develop bio-based, antiviral disinfectant fogging technology and a handheld diagnostic device for COVID-19 in meat and poultry processing facilities. Other grants help economists study the impact of the pandemic on price transmission and farm-retail price spread in the U.S. livestock market, while others are developing a Rapid Response Toolkit for tribal extension agents working with Native Nations, who are among the hardest-hit populations. A complete list of all funded research projects is available on the NIFA website.

NIFA also provides critical support to 4-H, one of America’s largest youth development organizations. Traditional 4-H camps and project or livestock competitions moved to virtual formats, which was an easier transition for many young people who are digital natives but also was complicated by the lack of adequate broadband access in many rural areas where many 4-H participants live. Hundreds of them used leadership, citizenship and entrepreneurial skills learned in the youth development program to make, market and distribute face masks and to offer technology support to help senior citizens use available technology to stay in touch with friends and family during social distancing.

Coast to coast, farmers found themselves with a surplus of fresh food when the foodservice and hospitality industries -- which account for a large share of their customers -- closed their doors. Unable to make the rapid shifts needed to repackage, redirect and deliver those supplies for the retail market, many growers turned to local extension experts, who helped organize websites, food box giveaways and community food bank deliveries to connect farmers’ food supplies with local markets.

During the pandemic, annual agricultural field days, which agricultural producers rely on for leading-edge, continuing education, were quickly moved to online delivery. Others opted for in-person, at-a-distance methods such as drive-up sessions where they stayed in their vehicles and observed demonstrations while listening to instruction either through their vehicle radio or over a loudspeaker.

Extension programs nationwide also reported dramatic increases in online program demand for classes on food safety and health protection during a pandemic, how to facilitate online schooling at home and home gardening and food preservation. When health experts recommended staying at home, many extension experts stepped in to offer free online tax preparation support and webinars to help small businesses understand the Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security Act and to develop applications to monitor and track up-to-date capacity in local health care systems.

NIFA's competitive and capacity funds totaling more than $1.7 billion annually are invested and at work in local communities across America every day. To find out more about how these critical funds are helping in your community, visit NIFA's website or each state’s cooperative extension service website.

NIFA invests in and advances agricultural research, education and extension and seeks to make transformative discoveries that solve societal challenges.


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