USDA: ‘We have got to make big bets’ on nutrition security, climate change & equity solutions

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

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Through a global challenge offering up to $2 million in prize funding announced this week, the US Department of Agriculture and the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) want to place “big bets” on high-risk, but high-reward innovations that tackle three of the most significant and stubborn challenges facing society: nutrition security, climate change and equity.

These challenges long have been considered distinct, but through the Nourishing Next Generation Agrifood Breakthroughs Innovation Challenge, USDA and FFAR want early researchers and innovators to consider them as interconnected, and to bring forward compelling solutions that simultaneously “support sustainable food production, promote human health and reduce inequalities while enhancing real-world nutrition security,” according to USDA.

“When we look at climate, nutrition security and equity through the same lens, we realize that we cannot address one challenge without really considering the impacts on the other two. So, the purpose [of this challenge] is to bring partners and experts who are often seen as part of disparate systems and encourage them to adopt a systems approach and to partner together to cultivate new ideas on how these three challenges should be addressed in unions,” USDA Sec. Tom Vilsack told attendees gathered in Washington earlier this week at USDA’s Agrifood Innovation Symposium, Harvesting Hope.

“We have got to make big bets in the space. We have got to catalyze research and we have to support the next generation right now to help solve these issues,” he added.

‘If I could tell you today what these proposals are going to be, they are not thinking big enough’

To that end, he explained, USDA and FFAR are looking for early career scientists, researchers and innovators who are focused on new discoveries and can mobilize transformative research tackling climate, nutrition security and equity.

The challenge will award teams with $300,000 to $500,000 for a total of up to $2 million, including $1 million from USDA appropriated by Congress to the Office of the Chief Scientist with the remaining coming from private sector partners.

The winners “will integrate nutrition security and human health with the need for food to be produced in a climate smart way and addressing the challenges of food access and food production in terms of social equity, justice and opportunity,” Vilsack said.

He added that he hopes the competition “will stimulate professional interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary relationships and connections that serve agriculture innovation,” and drive innovation as well as identify novels ways to use existing technology.

“We hope to see people coming together, proposing ideas that take a lot of risk that have high potential for failure, but can also be transformative,” Chavonda Jacobs-Young, USDA Chief Scientist and Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics, told FoodNavigator-USA. “If I could tell you today what these proposals are going to be, they are not thinking big enough. So, I want to see proposals come from people who sit down and say, ‘That is crazy. Let’s try it.’”

The winners also will identify and support dynamic and disruptive technologies in nutrition security that align with USDA’s three-year science and research strategy published last May that prioritized five areas: accelerating innovation technologies and practices, driving climate-smart solutions, bolstering nutrition security and health, cultivating resilient ecosystems and translating research into action.

Of these priorities, Jacobs-Young said she is eager to see applicants that tackle the fifth goal – translating research into action.

“That is the one that I would love to see [with] these proposals [that] come to us that they are proposing something big, but also they are thinking about it with the end in mind. How are we going to impact people’s lives? How are we going to feed more people with nutritious food? How are we going to improve the quality of life for Americans? How are we going to protect our environment?” she said.

Innovation challenge applications are due July 29. Those interested in more information about the challenge and application process can visit the USDA/FFAR Innovation Challenge page​.

Innovators, researchers and scientists with ideas that do not fit into the guidelines of this challenge can still work with USDA, added Jacobs-Young.

“We have been very fortunate with three big pieces of legislation – especially the Inflation Reduction Act, where we received significant funding for climate smart agriculture. There are so many programs across USDA that if some do not find a home in the innovation challenge that we announced today, there are a plethora of opportunities to be involved and engaged with USDA and our teams across the country,” she said.

Symposium jumpstarts interdisciplinary networking, brainstorming

To jumpstart the inter- and transdisciplinary networking and brainstorming called for by USDA leaders to address nutrition security, climate change and equity, the agency brought together stakeholders from across the agriculture and food industries for a dynamic symposium focused on innovating scientific solutions and to nourish people and the planet.

Speakers included Air Protein CEO Lisa Dyson, who shared how the food-tech startup is creating versatile, functional protein powder and other ingredients with little more than air, water and energy. The company’s first ingredient is 80% protein with additional vitamins and minerals, such as B-12, which is less available in a vegan diet. The powder also has desirable functional properties, such as the ability to hold oil and water for moistness.

Other presenters who joined Dyson during the event’s Inspiration Discussion of Emergent Agriculture (IDEA) Showcase included USDA Research Geneticist Ed Buckler who discussed advances in plant breeding and genetics, Leanne Gluck, who heads education innovation at Farm-ng, which is reimagining farm tools with automation and accessibility in mind, and Anuja Jaitly, founder and chair at Umby, which addresses inequity by pairing the purchase of its umbrellas with one year of health, life, agriculture or disaster insurance for families in need.

Ietef “DJ Cavem” Vita, a rapper, activist, educator and vegan chef who is also the CEO of Plant-Based Records and Eco-Cultivator, encouraged attendees to “put their hands in the air” while he sang about the impact of nutrition access, equity and the future of agriculture. He also interviewed Chefs Jumoke Jackson, aka Mr. Foodtastic, and Luke Black Elk, a governing council member of Makoce Ikikcupi.

Jacobs-Young added the symposium was “such an exciting opportunity to bring lots of people together from many different venues to think outside of the box about some of our challenges that have been facing us for quite some time” and take on together some of the “big, big audacious goals that we have for agriculture.”

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