[MANILA] The Philippines will open its doors to higher rice imports by next year, its economic minister said on Wednesday, as the government looks to comply with a World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement to lift trade barriers on the staple food.
The government will not seek a further extension of the so-called quantitative restrictions on rice, an agreement with the WTO that sets tariffs on rice at 35 per cent and caps the volume of annual imports by the private sector at 805,200 tonnes, Socio-economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia told reporters.
The South-east Asian nation, one of the world's biggest rice importers, has kept the restrictions in place since 1995 when it joined the WTO, which has allowed the Philippines two extensions since then.
It imports more than a million tonnes of rice a year, mostly from Thailand and Vietnam, including tariff-free purchases by the state grains agency the National Food Authority (NFA).
"It's hard to extend it because we have been given extensions already," Mr Pernia said. "I'm sure some people like it extended but in the opinion of the economic team, we prefer to just let it go."
Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol, who believes the Philippines could be self-sufficient in rice production by 2019, wants a further extension, saying local farmers are not yet prepared to compete with cheap imports.
But Mr Pernia argued introducing competition in the domestic market should encourage local farmers to improve efficiency.
In 2014 the Philippines won WTO approval to keep the import restrictions for three more years to June 2017 after the country agreed to lift the annual import volume from 350,000 tonnes and cut the tariff from 40 per cent.
Mr Pernia also said President Rodrigo Duterte's economic team has agreed to remove the NFA's commercial functions, including importing rice to build up stockpiles, making it a purely private business undertaking possibly starting by 2017.