Vietnam may snatch the title of world's top rice exporter from Thailand this year, saying it aims to match last year's record shipments of 7.2 million tons helped by strong demand and a positive outlook for domestic production.
In contrast, Thailand, which has been the world's biggest exporter for three decades, looks set to see exports fall sharply to 7 million tons at most due to high prices caused by government intervention to support millions of poor farmers.
"In our assessment we can maintain and will strive to reach the level of last year," Vietnam's Agricultural Minister Cao Duc Phat said on the sidelines of a regional conference held jointly with the Food and Agriculture Organization.
"As of now, the winter-spring rice crop is going very well. The output could rise from 2011," he said .
The comments are more bullish than a government forecast this month of 6.6 million tons and come despite a government estimate that exports could fall 44 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier to 1 million tons as foreign buyers wait for prices to bottom.
Exports in the first two months of the year slowed due to thin demand, dropping 46 percent from a year earlier to 556,000 tons.
"But we would like to reaffirm that we do not have policies to limit rice exports this year," Phat said.
Traders said foreign buyers, including major traditional importers of Vietnamese rice such as the Philippines and Indonesia, were waiting for the Mekong Delta harvest to peak and prices to fall before making their purchases.
Indonesia, which plans to import up to 2 million tons this year, should decide on this year's rice imports by no later than June when the government has a clearer idea about the size of the domestic crop, a government official said on Thursday.
Demand from Africa, another major buyer of Vietnamese grain, has fallen by two-thirds this year from a year earlier.
The Philippines said on Wednesday it would limit rice imports for the private sector this year to 380,000 tons but government-to-government deals were still likely to take total imports up to the planned 500,000 tons.
Some traders think the figure will be far higher, saying the Philippines needed to import more and imported grain is still lower than domestic grain.
In Thailand, which shipped a record 10 million tons in 2011, intervention has pushed export prices to around $520-$560 per ton, well above rice from India and Vietnam, which is around $100 lower.
"We'll do 7 million tons at best this year and maybe only 6.5 million in a worst case scenario," said Korbsook Iamsuri, president of the Thai Rice Exporters Association.
The government has extended its intervention program to the end of June, offering to buy rice from farmers at 15,000 baht per ton, well above market prices of 8,000-10,000 baht.
As a result, Thai exports have halved to 1.07 million tons so far this year from 2.15 million in the same period of 2011.