The Philippines has shifted away from setting a target date for its plan to be completely self-sufficient in the production of rice, a senior government official said, likely keeping its doors open to imports beyond the current goal of 2016.
That will be welcomed by key supplier Vietnam, which is looking to follow up on a string of deals to ship a total of 1.5 million tonnes of rice to Southeast Asia's biggest importer of the staple grain.
It could also be good news for Thailand, which wants to offload rice from a controversial stockpiling scheme at the heart of political turmoil in the country this year.
"I'm happy with 90- to 95-percent self-sufficiency (in 2016) and then we import the rest," said Francis Pangilinan, head of food security for the Philippines.
Pangilinan, appointed two months ago by President Benigno Aquino, added in an interview with Reuters that no new timeframe would be introduced for 100-percent self-sufficiency.
Critics have long said the Philippines' rice self-sufficiency goal, earlier set for 2013, was unrealistic. The target seemed even more remote after swathes of paddy were hit by drought or ravaged by typhoons, including last year's Haiyan.
While bumper harvests in other countries have stoked a global rice glut, prices in the Philippines have been pushed to record levels by the typhoons and as the government clamps down on smugglers looking to avoid hefty taxes.
"Part of the reason for the spike in (local rice) prices was precisely because we missed our sufficiency targets," said Pangilinan, with the official title of Presidential Assistant for Food Security.
"There was this tendency to downplay our import requirements, and therefore we did not import as much as we ought to, which created a tightening of supply."
The country's agriculture secretary has said the country achieved around 97 percent self-sufficiency in 2013, but many observers are sceptical of that figure.
The Philippines was Asia's fourth-biggest rice importer in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and was the world's eighth-largest.
Pangilinan said the country could buy more rice this year in the wake of its deals with Vietnam.
A government panel will meet on July 16 to discuss local rice supply and whether more imports will be needed, he said. The panel will factor in the possible return of the El Nino weather phenomenon in the third quarter, which in the Philippines could mean drought followed by strong typhoons.
Pangilinan made a surprise announcement last month that the Philippines would import an additional 200,000 tonnes of rice from Vietnam to boost thin state stockpiles and stabilise retail prices that have fanned inflation pressures.
The National Food Authority, under Pangilinan's remit, has doubled the amount of cheap rice it is releasing into local markets to stabilise prices, and this will continue during the lean production season from July to September, he said.
And the country will likely buy rice early for next year.
"Before the end of the year, we should be able to discuss ... and look at initial numbers in terms of our requirements for 2015," he said.
Pangilinan wants the private sector to take the lead next year in importing rice, but he said the NFA would keep shipping in to bolster buffer stocks.
The Philippines will loosen restrictions on rice imports starting next year by reducing tariffs and increasing the volume the private sector is allowed to buy overseas.
He also said he was open to scrapping a price subsidy scheme for local rice farmers and would propose that the government absorb the NFA's estimated $3.7 billion debt, part of a set of reforms he would like to introduce in the next two years.
A huge chunk of the NFA's debt is money borrowed to pay for rice imports.
"I am open to the proposal to remove the price subsidies, but the government should still help farmers bring down the cost of production," Pangilinan said.