Philippines' Duterte orders halt to rice imports as farmgate prices fall

An artwork featuring the image of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte with the letters D U and the number 3, a word play on the President's surname "DU30", is seen on a rice paddy in Los Banos city, Laguna province, south of Manila October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

MANILA, Nov 20 (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered a halt in rice imports after farmgate prices of the staple fell more than a fifth during the last nine months, hurting millions of farmers in the world's top buyer of the grain.

The Philippines, which often buys rice from southeast Asian neighbours Vietnam and Thailand, has imported 2.9 million tonnes this year, more than double the annual average in recent years, to dislodge China from the top spot among importers.

Duterte and Agriculture Secretary William Dar were set to discuss the policy directive on Wednesday, a Department of Agriculture spokesman said.

The suspension was necessary "because it is harvest time", Duterte told a news conference late on Tuesday, without giving a specific timeline or guidelines.

Duterte's directive also needs clarification as it is unclear if the suspension can be legally imposed, after he signed a law in February lifting curbs on rice imports.

Whether the halt will help lift farmgate rice prices, which have fallen more than 20% over the last nine months, is another question.

Rice imports surged after Manila lifted a two-decade-old cap on annual purchases to replace it with tariffs at levels critics called insufficient to protect farmers.

The Philippines' economic managers have rejected calls for the repeal or review of the rice tariff law, which helped rein in inflation to its lowest in more than three years by October, from last year's highest level in nearly a decade.

The suspension may also prove unnecessary, as the volume of rice imports dropped "drastically" in October to 85,000 tonnes from a monthly average of 254,000 tonnes in the first nine months, agriculture department data show.

Tighter food safety norms helped slow rice imports last month, the department said.

"We will continue to be strict and continue to elevate (food safety) measures before the issuance of sanitary and phytosanitary import clearance," Dar said in a statement.

To appease farmers, Duterte said the government would buy all their produce, even if prices are higher than usual. (Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)