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Crackdown on smuggling sparks rice shortage crisis in Philippines

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Inside a warehouse of the government National Food Authority in Bicutan, Philippines. The country's additional demand for rice could help underpin export prices in Vietnam and Thailand, traditionally its main suppliers, which have already shipped in more than one million tonnes this year.

Manila

THE Philippine agriculture minister said on Monday that he has proposed the importation of an additional 132,000 tonnes of rice by the private sector to address "very limited" supplies of the staple food in the country's southern provinces.

Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol said he had formally recommended the "special" importation to President Rodrigo Duterte, and the National Food Authority (NFA) Council would meet on Tuesday to consider the request.

The Philippines' additional demand for rice could help underpin export prices in Vietnam and Thailand, traditionally its main suppliers, which have already shipped in more than one million tonnes this year.

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In Vietnam, export prices of rice have been flat this month after falling steeply in June and July, although traders have reported rumours about possible new deals with the Philippines.

Mr Piñol said residents of the provinces of Tawi-Tawi, Sulu and Basilan and Zamboanga City in the southern Philippines have been scrambling for rice supplies in recent weeks following a crackdown on smuggling.

The southern regions have for years relied on smuggled rice believed to come from Vietnam and Thailand, shipped via the Malaysian state of Sabah, forcing local farmers to quit rice growing, he said.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Mr Duterte met last month and agreed to stop smuggling activities in the countries' borders, he said. The end of smuggling was a success in the government's campaign against illegal activities, but it had resulted in a crisis, Mr Piñol said in a statement posted on his Facebook page.

Last week, Zamboanga City and Isabela City in Basilan declared a state of calamity, citing the high prices of rice, he said. He described the situation in Tawi-Tawi as "precarious" as residents lined up for rice at prices as high as 100 pesos (S$2.56) per kilogram, almost triple the price of government-subsidised rice.

"The rice crisis was declared to have ended the other day in Zamboanga City with the arrival of new rice stocks from farmers cooperatives ... and the NFA, (but) Basilan, Sulu and Tawitawi are still gripped with very limited supply of rice," Mr Piñol said. REUTERS