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What Agricultural and Food Scientists Do

Agricultural and food scientists work to ensure agricultural productivity and food safety.


Agricultural and food scientists typically do the following:

Agricultural and food scientists play an important role in maintaining the nation’s food supply. Many work in basic or applied research and development. Basic research seeks to understand the biological and chemical processes by which crops and livestock grow. Applied research uses this knowledge to discover ways to improve the quality, quantity, and safety of agricultural products.

Many agricultural and food scientists work with little supervision, forming their own hypotheses and developing research methods accordingly. In addition, they often lead teams of technicians or students who help in their research.

The following are types of agricultural and food scientists:

Animal scientists typically conduct research on domestic farm animals. With a focus on food production, they explore animal genetics, nutrition, reproduction, diseases, growth, and development. They work to develop efficient ways to produce and process meat, poultry, eggs, and milk. Animal scientists may crossbreed animals to get new combinations of desirable characteristics. They advise farmers on how to upgrade housing for animals, lower animal death rates, handle waste matter, and increase production.

Food scientists and technologists use chemistry and other sciences to study the underlying principles of food. They analyze nutritional content, discover new food sources, and research ways to make processed foods safe and healthy. Food technologists generally work in product development, applying findings from food science research to develop new or better ways of selecting, preserving, processing, packaging, and distributing food. Some food scientists use nanotechnology to develop sensors that can detect contaminants in food. Other food scientists enforce government regulations, inspecting food processing areas to ensure that they are sanitary and meet waste management standards.

Soil and plant scientists conduct research on soil, crops, and other agricultural products.

Soil scientists examine the scientific composition of soil as it relates to plant or crop growth, and investigate effects of alternative soil treatment practices on crop productivity. They develop methods of conserving and managing soil that farmers and forestry companies can use. Because soil science is closely related to environmental science, people trained in soil science also work to ensure environmental quality and effective land use.

Plant scientists work to improve crop yields and give advice to food and crop developers about techniques that could enhance production efforts. They develop ways to control pests and weeds safely and effectively.

Agricultural and food scientists in private industry commonly work for food production companies, farms, and processing plants. They typically improve inspection standards or overall food quality. They spend their time in a laboratory, where they do tests and experiments, or in the field, where they take samples or assess overall conditions. Other agricultural and food scientists work for pharmaceutical companies, where they use biotechnology processes to develop drugs or other medical products. Some look for ways to use agricultural products for fuels, such as ethanol produced from corn.

At universities, agricultural and food scientists do research and investigate new methods of improving animal or soil health, nutrition, and other facets of food quality. They also write grants to organizations such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to get steady funding for their research. For more information on professors who teach agricultural and food science at universities, see the profile on postsecondary teachers.

In the federal government, agricultural and food scientists conduct research on animal safety and methods of improving food and crop production. They spend most of their time conducting clinical trials or developing experiments on animal and plant subjects. Agricultural and food scientists eventually present their findings in peer-reviewed journals or other publications.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition