IMPORTS EXPECTED TO CURB RICE PRICES IN PHILIPPINES

IMPORTS EXPECTED TO CURB RICE PRICES IN PHILIPPINES

Rising rice prices in the Philippines are expected to begin falling soon as imports and fresh supplies reach retail markets, Agriculture Secretary Roberto Sebastian said on Tuesday.

Prices have jumped to as high as 27 pesos (US$1.05) a kilogram in the past week from 15 pesos (58 cents) three months ago, leading to demands that Mr. Sebastian resign."We have been able to stabilize the price of rice," Mr. Sebastian told reporters at a briefing.

"We see the price of rice dropping by the second half of September," he said. The arrival of 250,000 tons of imported rice from neighbors of the Philippines and early harvests of the wet season crop should bring down rice prices soon, he added.

Mr. Sebastian rejected suggestions from politicians and some commentators in Manila that he resign over the rice shortfall, saying he would discuss his fate with President Fidel Ramos when he arrives from Australia today.

"It would not look good if I resign before the president arrives," he said.

Some 85,000 tons of imported rice have arrived in the Philippines and the remaining 165,000 tons will arrive from Thailand, India, China, Vietnam and Japan by Sept. 20.

The imports would help cap prices of the staple, which have surged after a severe drought caused a supply shortage in the seasonally lean third quarter.

Another factor that aggravated the shortage was the failure of the government's National Food Authority (NFA), which is in charge of building up buffer stocks for the lean months, to purchase rice from farmers, a group of rice traders said.

"The NFA appeared to have abandoned its mandate to stabilize farm and consumer prices," an official of the Philippine Confederation of Grains Associations Inc., said in a statement.

The decision of the NFA to shift its job into providing storage facilities for farmer cooperatives was abrupt and left it with only 30,000 tons of rice by July 1.

Without stocks to stabilize prices, the Grain Associations official said the NFA was helpless when prices started climbing sharply in late July.

Mr. Sebastian said price ceilings on rice and other basic commodities imposed last July on ordinary and special rice, which contained up to 35 percent broken grain, prompted millers to shift to milling just premium rice.

"Only premium, which contained 5 percent broken grain, and fancy rice were being milled," he said.

Mr. Sebastian said 1.7 million tons of unmilled rice should reach the market by the end of September, which would lead to a further easing of prices.

The country's unmilled rice harvest for 1995 is expected to reaching 10.9 million to 11 million tons, compared with 10.5 million tons in 1994.

But another severe drought at the end of the year when the dry season crop is planted may force the government to import rice again in 1996.

"If we get hit with another long drought, it will have an effect in the third quarter of 1996," Mr. Sebastian said.