The agricultural landscape is changing. Increased food production is needed to support the world population. Innovative efficiencies are needed throughout agriculture. Climate change scenarios suggest significant modifications in agriculture.

In order to address these issues and use informed scientific discovery and technology-driven innovation to develop solutions, the Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has created the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture. The center’s work will operate in the intersection of technology, data analytics, and decisions to address challenges and security in the natural world and in human society in the domains of plants, animals, and food systems.

This center is a direct result of listening to agriculture stakeholders express their needs during the 2018 Virginia Agriculture and Natural Resources Summit held in Richmond, Virginia.

An open house for all faculty, including faculty from other colleges at Virginia Tech, and industry partners interested in learning more about the center is being held on Tuesday, Jan. 26, at 10 a.m. Register for the virtual event at this link.

Scores of faculty members from across the college with experience ranging from precision agriculture and cyberbiosecurity to genomic design and machine learning will be part of the new center. In pursuit of the center’s vision and mission, active CAIA participants from around the university may request center affiliate faculty status.

“The Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture positions the college and Virginia Tech to make global impacts on the discovery and application of emerging agricultural technologies,” said Alan Grant, the college’s dean. “The establishment of the center comes at an exciting time for agriculture and at a time when the college can leverage its existing platforms to navigate toward a bold future.”

The world needs efficient and nimble agriculture and food systems, and the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture combines the existing expertise of the college to chart a path that addresses these issues in the natural world and human society.

“The center will facilitate agricultural innovations to address challenges through the creation of an agile and responsive network of interdisciplinary researchers,  transdisciplinary teams, and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialists,” said Susan Duncan, the center’s director and the associate director of Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station. “The college will address the pressing issues facing society from a position of strength based on our existing portfolio of basic and applied researchers.”

Some of the existing expertise and platforms the CAIA will utilize include the SmartFarm Innovation Network; cyberbiosecurity and biosecurity in agriculture and life sciences; and data analytics, decisions, and machine learning for food, agriculture, communities, and health systems.

The SmartFarm Innovation Network

Through innovative faculty, research, and interdiscplinary collaborations, Virginia Tech and the college are leading the charge to help local communities thrive and spark a new agricultural and natural resources economy and pushing the boundaries of farming with the SmartFarm Innovation Network.

Priorities for the SmartFarm Innovation Network are a rapid response to emerging and time-critical incidents for guiding industry and community decisions, and providing technological solutions and security measures to current and future challenges that limit production efficiencies, economic return, or capacity to adopt environmental or sustainable practices.

Above: SmartFarms in action. Bingyu Zhao, an associate professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, is researching how to grow food more efficiently in environments with limited space. This work will help the CAIA combat challenges that limit production efficiencies, economic return, or capacity to adopt environmental or sustainable practices.

Cyberbiosecurity and biosecurity in life sciences

The college is a leader in both biosecurity and cyberbiosecurity on which national security relies. Protection of the agricultural and food system, including complex life science data, has never been more critical as wireless and internet-connected devices are used in life science data collection, management, and sharing. Building on the success of the recent workshop organized by CALS — Securing the Agriculture and Food Economy (SAFE) with Cyberbiosecurity — CAIA will contribute to the expanding awareness of cyberbiosecurity for agriculture and life sciences through research, education, and training for academic, agency, and industry.

Additionally, the CAIA will enhance awareness and create training opportunities to protect intellectual property in partnership with the university’s LINK + LICENSE + LAUNCH team to create and implement research strategies and address priorities for the agriculture and food systems.

Data analytics, decisions, and machine learning in agricultural systems

CAIA will advance the ability to utilize artificial intelligence and machine learning for design, and identifying risks, resilience, and potential failures. Utilization of these technologies in prediction, modeling, and decision strategies advances all realms of agriculture, from plant design to animal nutrition and management, environmental sustainability, and food innovation.

The center will create effective and trusted partnerships across the campus and with external stakeholders to leverage the broader Virginia Tech capacity for innovation in agriculture and position Virginia Tech as one of the leading universities for innovation in agriculture and life sciences.

With the collaborative forces of the CAIA, affiliated faculty and Extension agents across the commonwealth will work together to prepare agricultural and food systems for the challenges of tomorrow. CAIA affiliation provides the benefits of resources, reputation, and the interdisciplinary collaboration to advance agriculture and life sciences.

To learn more about the center and how the center will impact the commonwealth and beyond, visit

–  Max Esterhuizen