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South Korea faces kimchi shortage after extreme heat and rains

TAEBAEK, South Korea — In the foothills of the rugged Taebaek Range, Roh Sung-sang examines the damage to his crop. More than half of the cabbages on his 50-acre plot are wilted and misshapen, having succumbed to extreme heat and rainfall over the summer.

“This crop loss we are seeing is not a one-year mistake,” said Roh, 67, who has been growing cabbages in the highlands of Gangwon province for two decades. “I thought the cabbages would be somehow protected by the high altitudes and surrounding mountains.”

With its typically cool climate, this alpine region of South Korea is the center of summer production of Napa, or Chinese cabbage, a key ingredient in kimchi, Korea’s pungent staple. But this year, nearly half a million cabbages that would otherwise have been spiced and fermented to make kimchi are left in the fields of Roh. Overall, Taebaek’s harvest is two-thirds of what it would be in a typical year, according to local authority estimates.

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The result is a kimchi crisis felt by connoisseurs across South Korea, whose appetite for the dish is legendary. According Korea Agro-Fisheries Trade Corp.

“I had no choice but to pay through my nose for cabbages,” said Sung Ok-Koung, 56, a housewife in Seoul, for whom making kimchi is an important family activity. South Koreans eat the spicy dish seven times a week on average, according to a 2020 survey by the Korea Rural Economic Institute.

The cabbage shortage is weighing not only on homemade kimchi, but also on commercially produced kimchi.

Rising costs prompted Daesang, South Korea’s top kimchi producer, to raise prices by 10% from next month, according to a company spokesman. Cabbage kimchi, the most popular type, has been out of stock at the company’s online mall for a month. (The fermented pickle dish can also be made from radishes, cucumbers, green onions, and other vegetables.)

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South Korea’s agriculture ministry blamed the situation on “bad weather” in the Gangwon Highlands and vowed to take “all possible measures”, including imports, to stabilize prices.

Imports, mainly from China, are a tricky subject. Kimchi, along with other artifacts found in both Korea and China, has been the subject of a recent cultural dispute over its provenance that has turned into a soft power battle between Asian neighbors. Chinese imports account for 40% of the commercially produced kimchi consumed in South Korea.

“It strikes Koreans because kimchi is so central to the nation’s cultural heritage,” said Koo Jeong-woo, a sociology professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul. The dish is a “way of life” for Koreans, he added.

But climate change is even more worrying.

In the past five summers in Taebaek, there have been about 20 days when maximum temperatures exceeded 33 degrees Celsius (91.4 Fahrenheit), the level the Korea Meteorological Administration considers heat wave conditions. There were no days during the 1990s when temperatures reached those levels, according to agency data.

Cabbages need temperate conditions for optimal growth. But in addition to dealing with warmer weather, growers face increasingly frequent extreme events, including heavy rains and typhoons, which can destroy a season’s income.

This summer’s heat wave was followed by torrential rains in Gangwon Province and elsewhere. Cabbages that survived the initial onslaught often fell victim to disease.

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Jeon Sang-min, distribution manager at the Taebaek Agricultural Cooperative, said cabbage production in the area has been declining over the past decade. With an eye on climate change, he researched alternative fruits and vegetables that can “endure the fickle weather”. He fears that farmers will be forced to switch to “subtropical crops” in the near future.

Some producers in Taebaek are already abandoning cabbages in favor of apples. South Korean apple orchards, traditionally found in southern Gyeongsang Province, have sprung up in more northern climates and at higher altitudes.

Despite soaring market prices for Napa cabbage, Roh and his fellow farmers are at a loss this year due to massive sunk costs. He sees “tremendous challenges” in the business and therefore has no intention of passing the cabbage farm down to his two children.

Some consumers, at least for now, are willing to bear higher prices. Sung said she always opts for locally produced cabbage for her homemade kimchi, due to “better taste and better quality” compared to imports. But longer-term conditions are not in its favour, according to scientists’ climate models.

“If climate change continues at its current rate, by the 2090s the yield of Korean highland cabbage will drop by 99%, which basically means there will be no more harvests,” he said. Kim Myung-hyun, a researcher at the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences in South Korea.

Still, Roh will continue to grow cabbage “as long as time and my health permit.” He is proud of the Gangwon highland cabbage.

“Their crunchy, slightly sweet leaves make the best kimchi,” he said.

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