NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The farm bill that President Barack Obama inked into law last Friday authorizes Congress to spend $700 million to fund researchers across the country who are using a range of biotechnology, genomics, and molecular biology approaches to develop better food crops and biofuels, study plant diseases, and improve livestock.
The president signed the Agriculture Act of 2014 (HR 2642) at Michigan State University, which is heavily engaged in agricultural sciences, and he made a point of noting that it is a research bill, even though the bulk of the $956 billion act will fund food stamps and farm insurance, among other things.
The $700 million for research in the bill funds the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), part of the US Department of Agriculture, for five years, and $400 million of that will be used to support research through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI).
The act only authorizes Congress to spend up to $700 million for NIFA; the actual funding the institute receives over the next five years may or may not add up to that much. That will depend on the annual appropriations process in Congress and the White House's budget proposals. But the $400 million for SCRI is guaranteed money, because the farm bill mandates that Congress fund the initiative with around $80 million per year over the next five years.
The SCRI funds genomics-related research into crops that are intensively cultivated, but which tend to be produced in smaller scale than some of the most common US crop plants. Instead of corn, potatoes, and tomatoes, this program funds research into apples, eggplant, olives, papayas, walnuts, strawberries, and a wide range of other crops.
These projects use genomics and biotech tools to improve crop characteristics, identify and address threats from pests and diseases, improve crop productivity and efficiency, delay ripening, detect and prevent food safety hazards, and develop new technologies across all of these areas.
SCRI supports research conducted by US land-grant institutions, private higher education institutions, small businesses, state agricultural experiment stations, and nonprofits.
NIFA, which was created in 2008 under a $700 million, five-year authorization, also funds the Agricultural and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). Under AFRI, NIFA supports other genomics, genetic engineering, and related biotechnology research programs beyond the specialty crop program, and it has ongoing programs focused on bioinformatics and microbial genomics.
The act also provides $200 million in mandatory funding over five years to create a new independent entity to be called the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR).
FFAR was envisioned to be in the mold of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, which fosters partnerships with the private sector, and is expected to receive an additional $200 million in matching funds through outside donations.
"[FFAR] is clearly designed to capture and encourage collaborations between the private sector and research institutes, to do research that is not duplicative of what is going to be funded within AFRI, or the other programs within NIFA," Ian Maw, VP of food, agriculture, and natural resources at the Association of Public Land Grant Universities, told GenomeWeb Daily News this week.
"Let's say that we have an organization like Monsanto or Dow AgroSciences that wants to do very specific research that addresses a specific crop development within their portfolios, that would not fall within the RFAs that would come out of AFRI. This is an opportunity [for the companies] to come to a university and say, 'Hey, let's partner with you and do research in this area and tap into the funding from this newfound organization.' Of course, there needs to be a match coming from those industries for those monies," Maw said.
Maw expects that there will be some initial tasks that the FFAR will have to sort out to get up and running. The foundation itself needs to be formed, and a board of directors will need to be appointed shortly.
Among other challenges, Maw said, FFAR will need to create some framework for how it will handle intellectual property that stems from the research it supports, as these studies will have partners at private companies, universities, and institutes.
FFAR "will have to develop its own by-laws and rules, and obviously IP is going to be an issue. They will have to develop their own schematics for that," said Maw. "In this first year there is going to have to be an awful lot of work that needs to be accomplished pretty quickly to get this foundation up and off the ground."