UPDATE 1-Philippines has no urgent need to import rice, says incoming minister

(Adds more comments from minister, background)

MANILA, June 8 (Reuters) - The Philippines, one of the world’s biggest rice buyers, has no urgent need to import rice for now given ample domestic supply, incoming agriculture minister Emmanuel Pinol said on Wednesday.

The Philippines regularly imports more than a million tonnes of rice a year, mostly from Thailand and Vietnam, although President-elect Rodrigo Duterte is aiming to make the country self-sufficient within one to two years.

“I was informed by the National Food Authority (NFA) that we have supply good to last for about 103 days. I think there is no need to import rice for now,” Pinol told reporters in a joint media briefing with his predecessor, Proceso Alcala.

Rice purchases by the Philippines could reach 2 million tonnes this year, the biggest in six years, following a damaging drought, according to a forecast by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Importing rice is a politically sensitive issue in the Philippines where nearly half of the population works in the agriculture sector.

Import tariffs for private traders are as high as 35 percent to protect local farmers, although the government is sometimes forced to import tariff-free supplies quickly if the local crop takes a hit.

Pinol said the government needs about 30 billion pesos ($651 million) to immediately rehabilitate the farm sector following a dismal first-quarter performance.

“We will boost rice production by focusing on irrigation,” he said, adding that the annual shortfall in domestic production versus demand now stands at around 1.8 million tonnes.

Some 500,000 tonnes of rice which the state’s NFA bought from Vietnam and Thailand arrived in the first quarter. Outgoing President Benigno Aquino has given the agency standby authority to import an additional 500,000 tonnes if needed, although the incoming administration has said it will review those plans.

$1 = 46.0700 Philippine pesos Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz; Writing by Manolo Serapio Jr.; Editing by Richard Pullin