By Enrico Dela Cruz
The Philippines, the world's top rice buyer, is seeking to import another 300,000 tonnes of the staple food to boost state stockpiles while battling the coronavirus pandemic and ahead of its own lean season in the third quarter.
The planned government-to-government deal would raise the Southeast Asian country's rice imports so far this year to a record 3 million tonnes, exceeding last year's purchases totalling 2.9 million tonnes.
Agriculture Secretary William Dar said on Monday the government has sent inquiries to Asia's biggest producers Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, India and Cambodia, seeking delivery before the third quarter, when domestic harvesting is usually low.
Fresh demand from the Philippines could boost export prices in Asia that are already at their highest in as much as two years.
Last week, rice export prices from top supplier India held near a nine-month high on strong demand from buyers in both Asia and Africa.
Prices in Vietnam for its 5% broken rice variety stood at the two-year peak of $450 a tonne on Monday, despite weak exports activity as the government's ongoing stockpiling programme kept supply low.
"Supplies are expected to start building up from next month when a small harvest in the country begins," said a trader based in the Vietnamese province of An Giang.
Vietnam, the third-largest rice supplier, fully resumed exports this month, after halting sales from late March and limiting supply in April at 500,000 tonnes to make sure it has sufficient food during the pandemic.
The Philippines, which usually buys most of its rice imports from Vietnam, had a 3.6% year-on-year contraction in its rice harvest in the first quarter.
Thailand, the No. 2 rice exporter, is not optimistic though about securing a deal with the Philippines, as its rice varieties are trading higher than those in Vietnam.
"It depends on whether Vietnam will be willing to supply the full amount. If not, we might be able to make some contribution," said Chookiat Ophaswongse, honorary president of the Thai Rice Exporters Association.
The association quoted 5% white rice <RI-THWHT5-A> at $539 a tonne, F.O.B. Bangkok, last week, while traders quoted a range between $515-$546 <RI-THBKN5-P1>.
Thailand expects to have a rice surplus of around 8 million tonnes for exports this year, despite an ongoing drought.
Vietnam has committed to start delivering this month the 400,000 tonnes that Philippine traders contracted in April, Dar said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Khanh Vu in Hanoi and Patpicha Tanakasempipat in Bangkok; editing by Christian Schmollinger, Tom Hogue and Louise Heavens)