Agricultural and Food Scientists

Career, Salary and Education Information

What Agricultural and Food Scientists Do[About this section] [To Top]

Agricultural and food scientists research ways to improve the efficiency and safety of agricultural establishments and products.

Duties of Agricultural and Food Scientists

Agricultural and food scientists typically do the following:

  • Conduct research and experiments to improve the productivity and sustainability of field crops and farm animals
  • Create new food products and develop new and better ways to process, package, and deliver them
  • Study the composition of soil as it relates to plant growth, and research ways to improve it
  • Communicate research findings to the scientific community, food producers, and the public
  • Travel between facilities to oversee the implementation of new projects

Agricultural and food scientists play an important role in maintaining and expanding 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 seeks 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 their research methods. In addition, they often lead teams of technicians or students who help in their research. Agricultural and food scientists who are employed in private industry may need to travel between different worksites.

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 make them more productive or improve other characteristics. They advise farmers on how to upgrade housing for animals, lower animal death rates, increase growth rates, or otherwise increase the quality and efficiency of livestock.

Food scientists and technologists use chemistry, biology, and other sciences to study the basic elements of food. They analyze the nutritional content of food, 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 problem-solving techniques from nanotechnology—the science of manipulating matter on an atomic scale—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.

Plant scientists work to improve crop yields and advise food and crop developers about techniques that could enhance production. They may develop ways to control pests and weeds.

Soil scientists examine the composition of soil, how it affects plant or crop growth, and how alternative soil treatments affect 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.

Agricultural and food scientists in private industry commonly work for food production companies, farms, and processing plants. They may 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 process agricultural products into 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 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 on 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 may eventually present their findings in peer-reviewed journals or other publications.

Work Environment for Agricultural and Food Scientists[About this section] [To Top]

Agricultural and food scientists hold about 43,000 jobs. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up agricultural and food scientists is distributed as follows:

Soil and plant scientists 19,900
Food scientists and technologists 17,000
Animal scientists 6,100

The largest employers of agricultural and food scientists are as follows:

Food manufacturing 15%
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 12
Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences 10
Government 8
Management, scientific, and technical consulting services 8

Agricultural and food scientists work in laboratories, in offices, and in the field. They spend most of their time studying data and reports in a laboratory or an office. Fieldwork includes visits to farms or processing plants.

When visiting a food or animal production facility, agricultural and food scientists must follow biosecurity measures, wear suitable clothing, and tolerate the environment associated with food production processes. This environment may include noise associated with large production machinery, cold temperatures associated with food production or storage, and close proximity to animal byproducts.

Certain positions may require travel, either domestic, international, or both. The amount of travel can vary widely.

Agricultural and Food Scientist Work Schedules

Agricultural and food scientists typically work full time.

How to Become an Agricultural or Food Scientist[About this section] [To Top]

Get the education you need: Find schools for Agricultural and Food Scientists near you!

Agricultural and food scientists need at least a bachelor's degree from an accredited postsecondary institution, although many earn advanced degrees. Some animal scientists earn a doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM) degree.

Education for Agricultural and Food Scientists

Every state has at least one land-grant college that offers agricultural science degrees. Many other colleges and universities also offer agricultural science degrees or related courses. Degrees in related sciences, such as biology, chemistry, and physics, or in a related engineering specialty also may qualify people for many agricultural science jobs.

Undergraduate coursework for food scientists and technologists and for soil and plant scientists typically includes biology, chemistry, botany, and plant conservation. Students preparing to be food scientists take courses such as food chemistry, food analysis, food microbiology, food engineering, and food-processing operations. Students preparing to be soil and plant scientists take courses in plant pathology, soil chemistry, entomology (the study of insects), plant physiology, and biochemistry.

Undergraduate students in agricultural and food sciences typically gain a strong foundation in their specialty, with an emphasis on teamwork through internships and research opportunities. Students also are encouraged to take humanities courses, which can help them develop good communication skills, and computer courses, which can familiarize them with common programs and databases.

Many people with bachelor's degrees in agricultural sciences find work in related jobs rather than becoming an agricultural or food scientist. For example, a bachelor's degree in agricultural science is a useful background for farming, ranching, agricultural inspection, farm credit institutions, or companies that make or sell feed, fertilizer, seed, or farm equipment. Combined with coursework in business, agricultural and food science could be a good background for managerial jobs in farm-related or ranch-related businesses. For more information, see the profile on farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers.

Many students with bachelors' degrees in application-focused food sciences or agricultural sciences earn advanced degrees in applied topics such as toxicology or dietetics. Students who major in a more basic field, such as biology or chemistry, may be better suited for getting their Ph.D. and doing research within the agricultural and food sciences. During graduate school, there is additional emphasis on lab work and original research, in which prospective animal scientists have the opportunity to do experiments and sometimes supervise undergraduates.

Advanced research topics include genetics, animal reproduction, agronomy, and biotechnology, among others. Advanced coursework also emphasizes statistical analysis and experiment design, which are important as Ph.D. candidates begin their research.

Some agricultural and food scientists receive a doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM). Like Ph.D. candidates in animal science, a prospective veterinarian must first have a bachelor's degree before getting into veterinary school.

Important Qualities for Agricultural and Food Scientists

Communication skills. Communication skills are critical for agricultural and food scientists. They must explain their studies: what they were trying to learn, the methods they used, what they found, and what they think the implications of their findings are. They must also communicate well when working with others, including technicians and student assistants.

Critical-thinking skills. Agricultural and food scientists must use their expertise to determine the best way to answer a specific research question.

Data-analysis skills. Agricultural and food scientists, like other researchers, collect data using a variety of methods, including quantitative surveys. They must then apply standard data analysis techniques to understand the data and get the answers to the questions they are studying.

Math skills. Agricultural and food scientists, like many other scientists, must have a sound grasp of mathematical concepts.

Observation skills. Agricultural and food scientists conduct experiments that require precise observation of samples and other data. Any mistake could lead to inconclusive or inaccurate results.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations for Agricultural and Food Scientists

Some states require soil scientists to be licensed to practice. Licensing requirements vary by state, but generally include holding a bachelor's degree with a certain number of credit hours in soil science, working under a licensed scientist for a certain number of years, and passing an exam.

Otherwise, certifications are generally not required for agriculture and food scientists, but they can be useful in advancing one's career. Agricultural and food scientists can get certifications from organizations such as the American Society of Agronomy, the American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists (ARPAS), the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), or the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA), and others. These certifications recognize expertise in agricultural and food science, and enhance the status of those who are certified.

Qualification for certification is generally based on education, previous professional experience, and passing a comprehensive exam. Scientists may need to take continuing education courses to keep their certification, and they must follow the organization's code of ethics.

Other Experience for Agricultural and Food Scientists

Internships are highly recommended for prospective food scientists and technologists. Many entry-level jobs in this occupation are related to food manufacturing, and firsthand experience is often valued in that environment.

Agricultural and Food Scientist Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

The median annual wage for agricultural and food scientists is $62,920. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $37,660, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $116,520.

Median annual wages for agricultural and food scientists are as follows:

Food scientists and technologists $63,950
Soil and plant scientists 62,300
Animal scientists 60,330

The median annual wages for agricultural and food scientists in the top industries in which they work are as follows:

Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences $76,050
Government 66,110
Management, scientific, and technical consulting services 63,280
Food manufacturing 59,210
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 52,170

Agricultural and food scientists typically work full time.

Job Outlook for Agricultural and Food Scientists[About this section] [To Top]

Overall employment of agricultural and food scientists is projected to grow 7 percent over the next ten years, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

Employment of agricultural and food scientists is projected to grow as research into agricultural production methods and techniques continues. Challenges such as population growth, increased demand for water resources, combating pests and pathogens, changes in climate and weather patterns, and additional demand for agriculture products, such as biofuels, will continue to create demand for research in agricultural efficiency and sustainability.

Animal scientists will be needed to investigate and improve the diets, living conditions, and even genetic makeup of livestock. Food scientists and technologists will work to improve food-processing techniques, ensuring that products are safe, waste is limited, and food is shipped efficiently and safely. Soil and plant scientists will continue to try to understand and map soil composition. They will investigate ways to improve soils, to find uses for byproducts, and selectively breed crops to resist pests and disease, or improve taste.

Employment projections data for Agricultural and Food Scientists, 2016-26
Occupational Title Employment, 2016 Projected Employment, 2026 Change, 2016-26
Percent Numeric
Agricultural and food scientists 43,000 46,200 7 3,200
  Animal scientists 6,100 6,400 6 400
  Food scientists and technologists 17,000 18,000 6 1,000
  Soil and plant scientists 19,900 21,700 9 1,800


*Some content used by permission of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor.

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