In the next 20 years, Western agriculture’s economic success will be tied to expanded specialty crop production and fewer acres in traditional crops including cotton, wheat and corn.

This picture painted by agribusiness lecturer Steven Slezak of California Polytechnic State University is based on insatiable global demand for more food and how specialty crops are the best niche fit for Western agriculture to help meet that worldwide demand.

Simply stated, the skyrocketing world population needs and demands more food, Slezak says. Worldwide food output must increase by 70 percent to meet the world’s projected 9 billion population in 2050. The current population is 7 billion.

“There is a greater demand for food worldwide,” Slezak said. “Exports are important to Western agriculture and will play an even more important role in the future to meet foreign export demand.”

Slezak, who grew up on a cattle ranch in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., shared his forecast during the 2011 Western Plant Health Association Annual Meeting held in Scottsdale, Ariz., in October.

Western agricultural exports are rising sharply. In 2009, California agricultural exports topped $986 million; that is nearly $1 billion, according to California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) data. From 2008 to 2009, California farm exports grew a whopping 34 percent.

Top California farm export markets in 2009 included Canada, Europe, China and Mexico.

CDFA reports the fastest growing California crop exports, above $15 million in value, include walnuts, almonds, pistachios and lemons. The fastest shrinking California farm exports, above $15 million, include dairy, beef and cotton.

“These are historic times we live in with globalization and increased foreign competition,” Slezak said. “This will have a significant impact on the agricultural sector across the United States.”

Slezak is with Cal Poly’s College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences.

“China and Brazil have large middle classes who want to live middle-class lifestyles,” Slezak said. “They want to buy American goods including agricultural products and they have the money.”

This is where the highest demand for U.S. farm products will come in the next five to 20 years. Competitors to the U.S. to supply the newfound demand include Mexico, China and others.

With the startling global demands for food, there is good and bad news for Western agriculture.

The good news is farm income and fertilizer demand will increase, but so will costs. Pesticide demand will become flat or slightly increase.

“Economics 101 says increased demand causes prices to rise and increased production,” Slezak said. “This is good news for farmers as they should earn more. Commodity prices should increase until supply starts to catch up with demand but that will take awhile.”