NSF leads a $35M federal investment in future agricultural technologies and solutions

Seven teams from the NSF Convergence Accelerator program advance to Phase 2 to tackle food and nutrition insecurity challenges 

The U.S. National Science Foundation is investing in new technologies that address the complex challenges in tackling food and nutrition insecurity from population growth, rising diet-related diseases and disparities and climate resilience. This investment will particularly address the needs of vulnerable and disadvantaged communities and involve a new partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

A total of seven multidisciplinary teams from the NSF Convergence Accelerator's Track J: Food & Nutrition Security have been selected to advance from Phase 1 to Phase 2, each receiving up to $5 million. Totaling a $35 million research investment, NSF is funding six Phase 2 teams and the seventh team is funded by the USDA.

Through this program track, NSF aims to help transform food systems across the nation to ensure access to healthy, safe and affordable food, as well as create sustainable agricultural forestry and food practices that consider the climate, regeneration and waste reduction. The track's focus also aligns with one of USDA's core priorities to ensure everyone in the country has consistent and equitable access to safe, healthy, affordable food essential to optimal health and well-being.

"Advancing food and nutrition security is a complex challenge that directly affects our nation's economic competitiveness," said Erwin Gianchandani, NSF assistant director for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships. "Through the NSF Convergence Accelerator program, and in partnership with USDA, NSF is committed to investing in research teams that will pursue novel technologies, tools and approaches to strengthen our nation's food supply chain, all the while reducing the inequities of historically underserved communities. We hope this investment will reduce wasted food while aiding the 12.8% of U.S. households that were food insecure in 2022."

"Collaboration between agencies and among disciplines leads to better outcomes. The USDA is excited to converge with NSF to work collaboratively using interdisciplinary approaches towards advancing food and nutrition security," said Manjit Misra, USDA director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). "These projects exemplify the kind of integrated work we support at NIFA, ensuring that groundbreaking scientific discoveries are brought out of the laboratory and into the hands of those who can put them to work."

During Phase 1, teams participated in the NSF Convergence Accelerator's nine-month innovation curriculum designed to take each team's initial idea to a proof of concept. Teams also gained skills in communication, storytelling and pitching and developed partnerships to strengthen their technology solutions. In Phase 2, the teams are expected to continue developing their solutions into prototypes, build strong partnerships and create sustainability plans beyond NSF support. This includes the new partnership with NIFA at USDA, which provides leadership and funding for programs that advance agriculture-related sciences.

"A collaborative approach between academic researchers, industry, government, nonprofits and other communities is important to optimize the production of food and connections between farmers and consumers, researchers and other stakeholders," said Douglas Maughan, head of the NSF Convergence Accelerator program. "A lot of great work was accomplished by all teams in Phase 1, but there is still more to be done. The teams selected for Phase 2 are expected to build innovative, tangible solutions and strong partnerships to address food scarcity, irrigation issues, supply chain inequalities and inefficiencies and more."

Phase 2 awardees include:

  • AquaSteady: Led by the Pratt Institute, AquaSteady, a seaweed-based water absorbent, is solving the water scarcity challenge by helping farmers retain moisture in soil between irregular rainfalls and irrigations. AquaSteady absorbs water from soil when it is wet and gradually returns it when the soil dries. It can be formed into an anti-erosion net or other shapes.
  • CropSmart: Led by George Mason University, the CropSmart digital twin provides on-demand, decision-ready solutions optimized to users' cropping goals. The services will be easily accessible to users through both web portals and smartphone apps. The optimal solutions are derived from near-real time remote observations of cropping systems with physics and artificial intelligence  or machine learning-based modeling and simulations.
  • Cultivate IQ: Led by the University of Arkansas, Cultivate IQ, an AI data transformation platform, integrates sales and production data from across the farm-to-market supply chain to help plan and manage regional food supplies. Local food buyers, including aggregators and distributors, host their growers on the platform, extending access to market insights, production planning tools and purchase orders.
  • Dairy NutriSols: Led by Boise State University, Dairy NutiSols is a research and innovation consortium committed to enhancing nutrition security and quality across the dairy supply chain. NutriSols assembled to address industry challenges and to meet the global demand for nutrient-dense foods. The consortium will innovate processes that enhance consistent product quality and improve production efficiency.
  • NOURISH: Funded by USDA and led by the University of California, San Francisco, NOURISH, an AI-powered platform, addresses food insecurity by enabling small businesses in food deserts to provide convenient, affordable fresh food to people in their communities. Leveraging knowledge assimilation and geospatial technologies, NOURISH connects business owners with capital, supply chains, knowledge resources from government, investors and community organizations. 
  • NourishNet: Led by the University of Maryland, College Park, NourishNet provides connections between producers, donors, distributors, and those experiencing food insecurity. The NourishNet toolbox includes a portable and user-friendly food quality sensor and a real-time app that optimizes surplus food distribution and allows for direct input from those who are experiencing food insecurity.
  • SENS-D: Led by the University of Missouri, Columbia, SensD, a sensor-enabled decision support system, empowers multi-sector stakeholders to build safe, equitable and resilient food systems. Through collaboration with the farm-to-fork supply chain, food banks and educators, SensD leverages rapid pathogen sensors to provide data-driven solutions for mitigating food-borne pathogen risks with visualization, prediction and optimization capabilities to create a safe food supply for all.

About the NSF Convergence Accelerator

Launched in 2019, the NSF Convergence Accelerator — a TIP program — builds upon NSF's investment in basic research and discovery to accelerate solutions toward societal and economic impact. The program's multidisciplinary teams use convergence research fundamentals and innovation processes to stimulate innovative idea sharing and development of sustainable solutions. For more information about the program, visit new.nsf.gov/funding/initiatives/convergence-accelerator.

About TIP

TIP harnesses the nation's vast and diverse talent pool to accelerate critical and emerging technologies and address pressing societal and economic challenges. The directorate comprises three primary focus areas: fostering innovation and technology ecosystems; establishing translation pathways; and partnering across sectors to improve U.S. competitiveness, grow the U.S. economy and engage and train a diverse workforce for future, high-wage jobs. For more information about TIP, visit new.nsf.gov/tip/latest.

About the National Institute of Food and Agriculture 

NIFA invests in and advances agricultural research, education and Extension across the nation to make transformative discoveries that solve societal challenges. NIFA supports initiatives that ensure the long-term viability of agriculture and applies an integrated approach to ensure that groundbreaking discoveries in agriculture-related sciences and technologies reach the people who can put them into practice. In Fiscal Year 2023, NIFA's total investment was $2.6 billion. To learn more about NIFA's impact on agricultural science, visit www.nifa.usda.gov/impacts.