Philippines makes U-turn on rice import suspension, but will tighten rules

Workers load a sack of rice in a warehouse in Quezon city, metro Manila, Philippines, February 7, 2018. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao

MANILA, Nov 21 (Reuters) - The Philippines will not suspend rice imports but will tighten food safety measures to control the entry of cheap grain that is hurting incomes of local farmers, the agriculture chief said on Thursday.

Agriculture Secretary William Dar made the announcement after a meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte, who had ordered the suspension of rice imports after purchases surged, making the Philippines the world's top buyer this year.

Duterte had wanted the suspension implemented during local harvest season, but its legality is unclear because he signed a law in February lifting curbs on importation of the grain.

His economic team is also against reinstating rice import restrictions, the removal of which helped rein in inflation that last year had quickened to the highest in nearly a decade.

Dar said Duterte has instead issued a directive for the Department of Agriculture, through its Bureau of Plant Industry, to strictly implement the issuance of sanitary and phytosanitary import clearance.

"The agency will conduct pre-inspection at the point of origin of imported rice stock to ensure rice quality and safety for consumers and at the same time protect the spread of crop pests and diseases," he told reporters.

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 and dislodging China from the top spot among importers.

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.

"He (Duterte) said that the Rice Tariffication Law will be pursued to provide affordable and quality rice to all Filipinos," Dar said.

Farmgate rice prices have fallen more than 20% over the last nine months as a result of increased domestic supply.

Dar said strict food safety requirements had, in fact, helped reduce the volume of rice imports to 85,000 tonnes in October from a monthly average of 254,000 tonnes in the first nine months.

To ensure Filipino farmers are able to sell and make a profit from their produce, Duterte has ordered state agency National Food Authority to double the country's emergency rice buffer stock to 30 days of supply by buying more from local producers, Dar said. (Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Kim Coghill)