RP buys rice to get by, wants to attain self-sufficiency

By Oliver Teves, AP

LOS BANOS, Philippines — The Philippines has enough rice to cover this year’s domestic shortfall, the agriculture chief said Friday, as the government signed an agreement with rice experts aimed at making the country self-sufficient in the staple.

Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap said the Philippines, the world’s top rice importer, has already secured 1.6 million tons of rice to make up for a 10 percent gap between domestic production and consumption.

Despite record high prices — pushed by export curbs, hoarding and price speculation in Asia’s rice producing nations — the Philippines is seeking to buy another 675,000 tons in Monday’s tender, but that would be used as a buffer stock, Yap told reporters.

The government failed to buy all the grain it sought in an April tender despite agreeing to pay 62 percent more than at a similar tender just a month ago.

The state-run grain importer, the National Food Authority, said it has so far signed contracts for about half of the 2.1 million tons of rice it plans to import this year. The price of rice from Thailand, the world’s biggest exporter, topped US$1,000 (euro640) per ton this month, nearly triple the January price.

In a bid to keep the prices from rising further, Yap said the Philippines is prepared to reject any bids that are too high or unreasonable.

In Los Banos, the site of the International Rice Research Institute, which has been developing rice varieties that can withstand drought or floods to help farmers across the world, Yap signed an agreement with the institute to accelerate rice production in the country, from the current average of 3.5 tons to 5 tons per hectare.

Robert Zeigler, director general of the institute, said the target production “would take care of the rice needs of the Philippines.”

Yap, accompanied by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, told reporters he expects the Philippines to achieve rice self-sufficiency by 2010 or 2011, barring bad weather.

“For 90 million Filipinos, self sufficiency in rice is not a choice but an imperative,” he said.

He said the plan focuses on irrigation, technology and credit support to farmers. It involves a joint breeding program to create high yielding varieties and mapping new rice-growing areas.

Zeigler said a key component to achieving the government’s target is instructing farmers in the proper use of fertilizers and pesticides and give them access to high quality seeds.

But there are challenges, including geography. The archipelago has less land suitable for rice production than many of its Asian neighbors, and is buffeted by Pacific typhoons that frequently destroy rice paddies. The rice production also has failed to keep up with a growing population, which topped 88 million last year.