Technological innovation in oil-palm farming could help both to boost yields of palm oil and to reduce deforestation, but only if higher productivity causes palm-oil prices to drop sufficiently to discourage additional cultivation (see Nature 543, 306–308; 2017). If prices stay high, the demand for land is likely to go up in the push for ever-larger profits.

Models that integrate economic and biophysical processes (IMPACT: see project a near doubling of oil-palm acreage in the next 40 years, an expansion compatible with the additional 19.3 million hectares estimated for sustainable oil-palm cultivation in the future (J. Pirker et al. Global Environ. Change 40, 73–81; 2016). The widespread adoption of a technology that could, say, double the production of cheaper oil stands to reduce these land requirements markedly.

However, the processes of innovation, adoption and market adjustment are not instantaneous or uniform across farmers and regions. During the transition, early adopters of innovative technologies will gain a competitive advantage, and thus an incentive to expand their cultivation area — potentially at the expense of environmentally sensitive land. Yield-boosting innovations should therefore be accompanied by careful monitoring and regulation of land conversion.