Rapid Response to COVID-19

In both good and bad times, agricultural researchers, educators, and extension professionals diligently toil to provide us with nutritious, abundant, and affordable food. The SoAR Foundation highlights their stories of discovery – Breakfast/Lunch/Dinnerin the FedByScience storybank.

Today, as our nation and the world struggle to fight COVID-19, medical professionals are working tirelessly to understand the virus, heal stricken people, and develop an effective vaccine. At the same time, agricultural professionals are rapidly responding to protect our farmworkers and the food system. Below are a few examples that describe how they are helping in various ways. These research, education, and extension efforts require sufficient USDA funding during this pandemic and into the future.

How can a competition stimulate a breadth of research? Penn State University recently ran an internal grant competition through the newly formed Institute for Sustainable Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Science (SAFES), asking faculty to think about the impacts of the pandemic on agriculture and the environment. The response was strong. SAFES is now funding 10 projects in total, listed here.

The breadth of the research is demonstrated by projects such as: “COVID-19 and Resilient Food Supply Chains,” “Impacts of COVID-19 on Beneficial Reuse Water and Compost Quality: Potential Agricultural and Environmental Health Impacts,” and “COVID Health Compass: A Framework for the interconnectedness between food security, co- morbidity, and income in vulnerable communities.” These projects are supported with USDA funds.

Penn State’s veterinary and biomedical scientists are also working hard on studying the virus itself, with projects that are conducting research in a high-containment biosafety level 3-enhanced lab on the Penn State campus to investigate different aspects of vaccine efficacy, potential treatment methods, virus transmission, and virus detection.[1]

How can extension agents reach out to protect workers? The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) is partnering with North Carolina Cooperative Extension and others to protect farmworkers and their families from COVID-19.

To reduce the spread of the virus, NCDHHS is implementing its plan to deliver over 900,000 masks and other infection control supplies to North Carolina Cooperative Extension county centers. Cooperative Extension agents are distributing the critical personal protection equipment for use by agricultural workers across the state. In addition to masks, the deliveries include hand sanitizer and cloth face coverings for workers to take home.

They are also raising awareness about this resource among the farming community. This initiative builds on measures North Carolina has taken with state and local partners to protect farmers and farmworkers by: providing virtual trainings and webinars and a COVID-19 Resources and Information website.[2]

How does coronavirus affect food systems? According to the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at University of Illinois, the pandemic is highlighting food system deficiencies. While the food system is successfully providing for Americans during this crisis, there have been some empty grocery shelves. Producers are struggling to reach consumers due to issues with processing, distribution, and demand. To address these challenges, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research is expanding existing grants to Feeding America and five Tipping Points Program awardees. The supplemental funding will quantitatively assess how food systems, and especially emergency food system, operate, and adapt in times of stress.

Craig Gundersen, distinguished professor of agricultural and consumer economics at ACES, contributes to the project as lead researcher on Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap (MMG), a database that provides detailed information on local, regional, and national food insecurity. Gundersen developed the data collection methods and models to estimate food insecurity rates that comprise the MMG reports.[3]

How can USDA NIFA’s rapid response help? The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is investing in rapid response research on COVID-19’s impacts on agriculture. In April, NIFA called for applications on research or extension activities that focus on developing and deploying rapid, reliable, and readily adoptable COVID-19 agricultural strategies across the food and agriculture enterprise. Through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, NIFA will invest up to $9 million for research in these areas. 

USDA NIFA is using an expedited solicitation, evaluation, and grant-making process to quickly deploy funding on COVID-19 agricultural research to fund projects designed to swiftly fill knowledge and information gaps; strengthen and support critical cross-cutting issues to protect the food and agriculture supply chain, livestock health and security, and food safety. NIFA COVID-19 resources can be found here.[4]

These researchers, educators, and extension professionals are helping ensure that there is safe, wholesome, and ample food on our tables during these challenging and uncertain times. They rely on federal and state funding and they deserve our support.

[1] Email correspondence with Gretta Tritch Roman, Penn State, July 24, 2020.





Written by:
Andrea Putman
Rapid Response to COVID-19
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