South Korea faces kimchi shortage after extreme heat, rainfall

TAEBAEK, South Korea – In the foothills of the rugged Taebaek Range, Roh Sung-sang surveys damage to his crops. More than half of the cabbages on his 50-acre plot are wilted and deformed, due to their inability to withstand extreme temperatures and amount of rain during the summer.

Roh, 67, who has been growing cabbage in the highlands of Gangwon Province for two decades, said: “This crop failure that we see is not something that happens in just one year. “I think that somehow the cabbages will be protected by the altitude and the surrounding mountains.”

With a typically cool climate, this high mountain region of Korea is the production hub in the summer for Napa, or Chinese cabbage, a key ingredient in kimchi, an important Korean dish. But this year, nearly half a million cabbages that would otherwise have been seasoned and fermented to make kimchi have been abandoned in the fields of Roh. Overall, Taebaek’s harvest is two-thirds that of a normal year, according to local government estimates.

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The result is a kimchi crisis felt by foodies across Korea, for whom the appetite for the dish has become legendary. Follow Korea Agro-Fisheries Trading Corporation is state-run.

“I have no choice but to pay for cabbage,” said Sung Ok-Koung, 56, a housewife in Seoul. According to a 2020 survey by the Korea Institute of Rural Economy, Koreans eat this spicy dish an average of seven times a week.

The shortage of cabbage is affecting not only homemade kimchi but also commercially produced kimchi.

Rising costs have prompted Daesang, South Korea’s top kimchi maker, to raise prices by 10 percent starting next month, according to a company spokesman. Cabbage kimchi, the most popular variety, has been out of stock on the company’s online mall for a month. (Fermented pickles can also be made from radishes, cucumbers, scallions, and other vegetables.)

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South Korea’s agriculture ministry attributed the situation to “adverse weather” in the Gangwon highlands and promised to take “all possible measures”, including imports, to stabilize prices.

Imports, mainly from China, are a sensitive topic. Kimchi, along with other items found in both Korea and China, is the subject of a Cultural controversy over its origin that escalated into a soft power war between Asian neighbors. Chinese imports account for 40% of commercially produced kimchi consumed in South Korea.

Koo Jeong-woo, a sociology professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, said: “It excites Koreans because kimchi is at the heart of the national cultural heritage. This dish forms a “way of life” for Koreans, he added.

But of even broader concern is the changing climate.

During the past five summers in Taebaek, there have been about 20 days with maximum temperatures reaching 33 degrees Celsius (91.4 degrees Fahrenheit), what the Korea Meteorological Agency considers heatwave conditions. According to the agency’s data, there was no day in the 1990s when temperatures reached that level.

Cabbage requires temperate conditions for optimal growth. But in addition to facing warmer weather, growers face increasingly frequent extremes, including heavy rains and storms, which can destroy a season’s earnings.

This year’s summer heatwave brought torrential rain in Gangwon Province and elsewhere. Cabbage plants that survive the initial attack often fall victim to the disease.

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Jeon Sang-min, distribution manager at the agricultural cooperative Taebaek, said cabbage production in the region has declined over the past decade. With an interest in climate change, he searched for alternative fruits and vegetables that could “cope with erratic weather”. He is concerned that farmers may need to switch to “subtropical crops” in the near future.

Some growers in Taebaek have given up cabbage in favor of growing apples. Korean apple orchards, traditionally found in the southern province of Gyeongsang, have emerged in more northern climates and at higher elevations.

Despite soaring market prices for Napa cabbage, Roh and his farmers are still losing money this year due to rising costs. He sees “challenging heights” in the business and as a result, he has no plans to pass on the cabbage farm to his two children.

Some consumers, at least for now, are willing to pay higher prices. Sung said she still chooses locally produced cabbage for her homemade kimchi, because of the “better taste and quality” than imported ones. But the long-term conditions weren’t in her favor, according to the scientists’ climate models.

“If climate change continues at the current rate, by the 2090s, Korean upland cabbage yields will be set to rise,” said Kim Myung-hyun, a researcher at Korea’s National Institute of Agricultural Sciences. 99% reduction, which basically means no more harvesting.”

However, Roh will continue to grow cabbage “as long as the weather and my health permit me to do so.” He is proud of the Gangwon highland cabbage.

“Their crisp and lightly sweet leaves make the best kimchi,” he says.

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