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Agricultural Scientists

The Job

The work of agricultural scientists can be divided into several areas of specialization, each with various careers.

The following are careers that fall under the areas of plant and soil science.

Agronomists investigate large-scale food-crop problems, conduct experiments, and develop new crop growth methods to ensure more efficient production, higher yields, and improved quality. They use genetic engineering to increase the nutritional value of crops; develop crops that are resistant to pests, drought, and plant diseases; increase the quality of seed stock; reduce the amount of harmful pesticides needed to grow crops; create weed-resistant plants; and produce foods that are free of allergens or toxins (such as mycotoxin, which can cause people who consume mycotoxin-contaminated crops to become very ill or even die). 

Agronomists also engage in soil science. They analyze soils to find ways to increase production and reduce soil erosion. They study the responses of various soil types to fertilizers, tillage practices, and crop rotation. Since soil science is related to environmental science, agronomists may also use their expertise to consult with farmers and agricultural companies on environmental quality and effective land use.

Botanists are concerned with plants and their environment, structure, heredity, and economic value in agronomy, horticulture, and medicine.

Horticulturists study fruit and nut orchards and garden plants such as vegetables and flowers. They conduct experiments to develop new and improved varieties and increase crop quality and yields. They also work to improve plant culture methods for landscaping and beautifying communities, parks, and homes.

Plant breeders apply genetics and biotechnology to improve plants' yield, quality, and resistance to harsh weather, disease, and insects. They might develop strains of wild or cultivated plants that will yield a larger yield and increase profits.

Plant pathologists research plant diseases and the decay of plant products to identify symptoms, determine causes, and develop control measures. They attempt to predict outbreaks by studying how different soils, climates, and geography affect the spread and intensity of plant disease.

Another area of specialization for agricultural scientists is animal science.

Animal scientists conduct research and develop improved methods for housing, breeding, feeding, and controlling diseases of domestic farm animals. They inspect and grade livestock food products, purchase livestock or sell and market livestock products. They often consult agricultural businesses on upgrading animal housing, lowering mortality rates, or increasing the production of animal products such as milk and eggs.

Dairy scientists study the selection, breeding, feeding, and management of dairy cattle. For example, they research how various types of food and environmental conditions affect milk production and quality. They also develop new breeding programs to improve dairy herds.

Poultry scientists study poultry breeding, feeding, and management to improve the quantity and quality of eggs and other poultry products.

Animal breeders specialize in improving the quality of farm animals. They may work for a state agricultural department, agricultural extension station, or university. Some of their work is done in a laboratory, but much is done outdoors, working directly on animals. Using their knowledge of genetics, animal breeders develop systems for animals to achieve desired characteristics such as strength, fast maturation, resistance to disease, and quality of meat.

Animal scientists also use biotechnology to improve the health of animals and humans, increase livestock productivity, and reduce the environmental impact of agricultural production. The Biotechnology Industry Organization reports that animals safely genetically engineered in research studies include pigs, cattle, goats, chickens, and sheep. AquAdvantage Salmon was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on November 19, 2015, making it the first bioengineered animal approved for human consumption. Although the government initially prevented AquAdvantage from importing salmon eggs into the United States, the company finally began commercial production in 2019.

Food science is a specialty closely related to animal science, but it focuses on meeting consumer demand for food products in ways that are healthy, safe, and convenient.

Food scientists use their backgrounds in chemistry, microbiology, biotechnology, and other sciences to develop new or better ways of preserving, packaging, processing, storing, and delivering foods. Food technologists work in product development to discover new food sources and analyze food content to determine levels of vitamins, fat, sugar, and protein. They also enforce government regulations, inspecting food processing areas and ensuring that sanitation, safety, quality, and waste management standards are met.

Another field related to agricultural science is agricultural engineering.

Agricultural engineers apply engineering principles to work in the food and agriculture industries. They design or develop agricultural equipment and machines, supervise production, and conduct tests on new designs and machine parts. They develop plans and specifications for agricultural buildings and drainage and irrigation systems. They work on flood control, soil erosion, and land reclamation projects. They design food processing systems and equipment to convert farm products to consumer foods. Agricultural engineers contribute to making farming easier and more profitable by introducing new farm machinery and advancements in soil and water conservation. Agricultural engineers in industry engage in research or design, testing, or equipment sales.

Much of the research conducted by agricultural scientists is done in laboratories and requires familiarity with research techniques, laboratory equipment, and computers. Some research, however, is carried out wherever necessary. A botanist may have occasion to examine the plants that grow in the volcanic valleys of Alaska, or an animal breeder may study the behavior of animals on the plains of Africa.

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