FFAR Announces New Innovator in Food & Agriculture Research Awardees

Washington, DC

WASHINGTON (April 14, 2022) – Scientists in the early years of their careers often have difficulty pursuing innovative research due to the pressure of securing funding. Today, the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) announced the recipients of the 2021 New Innovator in Food & Agriculture Research Award, an award granted to early career scientists supporting research in one of FFAR’s Challenge Areas. FFAR’s New Innovator in Food & Agriculture Research Award provides early-career scientists with funding to conduct audacious food and agriculture research. Cumulatively, the recipients are receiving a total of $3,742,557 over three years. For this program, FFAR does not require matching funds from applicants since these funds are provided by FFAR. However, several recipients secured $688,700 in additional matching funds for a total $4,431,257 investment.


Our New Innovator Awardees are pursuing creative, audacious research to overcome challenges to our food and agriculture system. Thanks to these awards, they have one less hurdle to achieving pioneering results. Lucyna Kurtyka, M.S.
Senior Scientific Program Director Emeritus

The following individuals are the 2021 New Innovator in Food & Agriculture Research Award recipients:

A promise of big data is the ability to better understand and predict relevant social-ecological phenomena. However, modern machine learning and statistical analyses of big data often fail to embed the human context needed to uncover and predict these phenomena more fully. In this project, Birgé reframes the challenge of predicting cover crop adoption on working farms as social-ecological, rather than strictly technical. To do this she is engaging farmers to create regressions trees—a type of decision-making algorithm—that describe individual farm-level decisions to adopt cover crops. These regression trees can then be tested using large, remotely sensed biophysical datasets. By eliciting farmer expert knowledge in this way, Birgé can improve the efficacy of big data to predict not only when and where cover crops are likely to be adopted on the landscape but also why.

Meeting future food needs requires effectively managing scarce groundwater. California is addressing this problem through the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which ensures better groundwater use and management. Bruno’s research is using the act as a case study to identify policies that enhance water sustainability and minimize regulation costs.

Soybeans are an important protein source and generate billions in economic growth in the United States. However, soybean yields lag behind other staple crops due to knowledge gaps concerning hybrid breeding—breeding between genetically distinct parent crops. Frank’s research focuses on increasing yields through a two-pronged approach. Frank’s team is using biotechnology to introduce a male-sterility/male rescue system that prevents soybean from self-pollinating, along with CRISPR gene editing to enhance soybean floral traits that will attract bees to outcross, or cross different breeds of soybeans. This hybrid breeding system has the potential to introduce genetic diversity, potentially creating trillions of dollars in additional economic and agricultural growth.

Nitrogen fertilizer increases crop yields to meet growing food demands, but because less than 50 percent of applied nitrogen fertilizer is used by plants, the excess fertilizer can threaten environmental and human health. Legume crops can create their own nitrogen through root nodule symbiosis with certain microbes. While research efforts are underway to engineer popular cereal crops to form root nodules, there is not a strong effort to generate a compatible microbial partner for these crops. Geddes’ research is investigating root nodule symbiosis to develop microbes that can thrive in the cereal microbiome, initiate nodule formation and self-adapt for efficient nitrogen fixation and nutrient exchange with their host plant.

Beneficial microbes in a plant’s rhizosphere—the root-soil interface—increase plant growth and soil health, but not enough is known about how microbes, plants and soil interact and how to ensure microbes do not spread outside of the target soil, which could have unintended consequences. Kunjapur is examining whether a laboratory microbe can provide long-lasting pathogen resistance to crops, while also preventing the microbe’s growth, allowing it to be contained to a specific area. This project furthers development of targeted capabilities in crops to help them survive future stresses.

The transition from Indigenous food systems to industrialized farming with ultra-processed food continues to threaten native habitats and the health of Indigenous people. As efforts emerge to explore underutilized crops to meet nutritional needs and to sustain local ecosystems, fermentation has uncharted potential to unlock the possibility of Indigenous crops. Kuo is partnering with smallholder women farmers in Senegal to examine the nutritional and culinary benefits of fermenting Indigenous crops for developing healthy school meal items. This study can be extended to her collaboration with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to innovate Native American fermented foods for supporting food sovereignty.

In the US, swine producers protect their herds from infectious diseases using biosecurity practices; however, the effectiveness of these practices varies greatly because there is insufficient information about which practices work best for different types of diseases and farms. There is also no central database of farms and their biosecurity plans. Machado is partnering with commercial pig producing companies, swine producers and local veterinary health officials to create a secure database of all swine farms in the country, their biosecurity plans and other potential risk factors for disease outbreaks. Using this information, Machado’s team can run computer simulations of outbreaks to test which biosecurity practices are most effective at containing infections and protecting farms. The team will combine secure databases and computer simulations into a user-friendly app to enhance biosecurity for farms and prepare for future outbreaks.

Salmon and trout farming provides high quality seafood that can meet the growing demand for protein. However, the fish farming industry struggles with fish escaping to breed in the wild and disease management challenges that restrict the industry’s growth. New genome-editing applications hold promise for improving aquaculture sustainability, yet the field is in its infancy. Phelps’ research is using advanced CRISPR gene editing to produce sterile rainbow trout and develop rapid disease diagnostic tests, which could address challenges the industry currently faces.

Plant roots are highly efficient at building soil organic matter, suggesting that increasing root growth in cropping systems can improve soil health. However, there are knowledge gaps that limit our ability to take full advantage of soil health benefits that roots could provide—for example, the contributions of living roots vs. decaying root litter to soil organic matter are unclear. Poffenbarger’s research is determining how living roots and decaying litter affect soil organic matter in low and high fertility soils and evaluating cover crops as a tool to capitalize on the benefits of roots in cropping systems.

On average, FFAR garners $1.40 in match for every federal dollar allocated. FFAR is using the overmatch, the funding garnered on top of the 1:1 match, to fully fund the New Innovator Award program. Eliminating the matching requirements opens this award program to a broader pool of applicants.

The New Innovator Awardees’ promising research is opening new avenues of knowledge to deliver groundbreaking solutions to difficult challenges.

Photo of pollinating bee provided by Dr. Margaret Frank, Cornell University.


Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research

The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) builds public-private partnerships to fund bold research addressing big food and agriculture challenges. FFAR was established in the 2014 Farm Bill to increase public agriculture research investments, fill knowledge gaps and complement the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research agenda. FFAR’s model matches federal funding from Congress with private funding, delivering a powerful return on taxpayer investment. Through collaboration and partnerships, FFAR advances actionable science benefiting farmers, consumers and the environment.