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[MONTEVIDEO] Colombia, Ghana, Malaysia, Thailand and Uruguay are the top five developing countries likely to attract biodiesel investment because of their strong agricultural industries, relative stability and low debt, says a US study.

The analysis, 'A Global Comparison of National Biodiesel Production Potentials', was published online yesterday (24 October) in Environmental Science and Technology.

The analysis ranks 226 countries according to their potential to make large volumes of biodiesel at low cost.

Matt Johnston, one of the authors from the US-based University of Wisconsin-Madison, told SciDev.Net that they used data from public online sources, primarily the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and several economic and development measurements.

The main objective was to identify developing countries already exporting large amounts of vegetable oil for profit — from palm or soybean crops for example— but who may not have considered the option of refining it into biodiesel, he said.

According to the study, these countries could improve their trade balance — the difference between a county's imports and exports — by exporting biodiesel or using the fuel to satisfy their own energy needs.

Virginia Lobato, an independent Uruguayan expert on biofuels, agrees, saying, "Colombia is privileged because it has many native oilseeds to develop a biodiesel industry without putting its food security at risk."

But she told SciDev.Net that although Uruguay has a reliable climate for farming and political and social stability, it doesn't yet grow the raw materials to produce a variety of biofuels. Lobato believes this study could influence Uruguayan policies on biodiesel, especially because is currently aiming to attract foreign capital.

Lobato warned that developing countries should not make large investments in biofuel before analysing the potential consequences, such as endangering the food security of poor people by turning food crops into biofuel. 

Critics say biofuel production can also lead to deforestation as land is cleared for biofuel crop farming.

But the study authors hope that highlighting countries with potential will help them anticipate and mitigate problems.

The authors estimate that if the 119 countries in their analysis converted their exported vegetable oil to biodiesel, they could meet 4–5 per cent of the current demand for petroleum diesel.

Link to abstract of paper in Environmental Science and Technology

Reference: Environmental Science and Technology doi 10.1021/es062459k (2007)