South Korea faces kimchi shortage after extreme heat and rain

TAEBAEK, South Korea — In the foothills of the rugged Taebaek mountain range, Roh Sung-sang surveys 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 rain during the summer.

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

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

Typhoon Hinnamnor hits South Korea, leaving thousands without power

The result is a kimchi crisis felt by South Korean connoisseurs, whose appetite for the dish is legendary. The consumer price of Napa cabbage soared this month to $7.81 each, compared with a yearly average of about $4.17, according to the state-owned Korea Agro-Fisheries Trade Corp.

“I had no choice but to pay through the nose for the 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 affecting not only homemade but also commercially produced kimchi.

Rising costs have pushed Daesang, South Korea’s top kimchi producer, to raise prices by 10 percent starting next month, according to a company spokesman. Cabbage kimchi, the most popular type, was out of stock at the company’s online mall for a month. (The fermented pickle dish can also be made with radish, cucumber, green onion, and other vegetables.)

To promote kimchi abroad, Korean scientists are trying to get rid of the smell.

South Korea’s Ministry of Agriculture blamed the situation on “adverse weather” in the Gangwon highlands and vowed to take “all possible measures”, including imports, to stabilize the price.

Imports, mostly from China, are a touchy subject. Kimchi, along with other items found in both Korea and China, was the subject of a recent cultural dispute over its provenance that escalated into a soft power battle between the Asian neighbors. Chinese imports account for 40 percent of the commercially produced kimchi consumed in South Korea.

“Koreans are shocked because kimchi is 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 an even broader concern is the changing climate.

During the past five summers in Taebaek, there were about 20 days when high temperatures exceeded 33 degrees Celsius (91.4 Fahrenheit), the level that 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 require temperate conditions for optimal growth. But in addition to dealing with warmer weather, growers face increasingly frequent extreme events, including heavy rains and typhoons, that can destroy a season’s profits.

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

Climate change in Hong Kong worsens housing crisis for the city’s poor

Jeon Sang-min, distribution manager of the Taebaek Agricultural Cooperative, said that cabbage production in the region has been declining for the past decade. With an eye on climate change, he has been searching for alternative fruits and vegetables that can “withstand erratic weather.” He worries that farmers will have to switch to “subtropical crops” in the near future.

Some Taebaek growers are already ditching cabbages in favor of apples. South Korea’s apple orchards, traditionally located in the southern province of Gyeongsang, have been appearing in more northern climates and at higher altitudes.

Despite rising market prices for Napa cabbage, Roh and his fellow farmers are losing out this year due to huge sunk costs. He sees “great challenges” in the business and, as a result, has no plans to pass the cabbage farm on to his two sons.

Some consumers, at least for now, are willing to accept higher prices. Sung said he still opts for locally grown cabbage for his homemade kimchi because of the “better taste and quality” compared to imports. But longer-term conditions are not in his favor, according to scientists’ climate models.

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

Still, Roh will continue to grow cabbages “as long as the weather and my health allow.” He takes pride in the Gangwon highland cabbage.

“Its crisp, slightly sweet leaves make the best kimchi,” he said.

Leave a Comment