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Bitter cabbage harvest brings South Korea’s kimchi crisis to a head

Roh Sung-sang inspects the damage to his cabbage crop on his farm in Taebaek, South Korea. (Min Joo Kim/The Washington Post)

TAEBAEK, South Korea — In the foothills of the rugged Taebaek range, Roh Sung-sang surveys the damage to his crop. More than half the cabbages in his 50-acre patch sit wilted and deformed, having succumbed to extreme heat and rainfall over the summer.

“This crop loss we see is not a one-year blip,” 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 high elevations and the surrounding mountains.”

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

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

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

The cabbage shortfall is putting a squeeze on not only homemade but also commercially produced kimchi.

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

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South Korea’s Ministry of Agriculture attributed the situation to “adverse weather” in the Gangwon highlands and promised to take “every possible measure,” 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 spat over its provenance that escalated into a soft-power battle between the Asian neighbors. Chinese imports account for 40 percent of commercially produced kimchi consumed in South Korea.

“It strikes home for 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 constitutes a “way of life” for Koreans, he added.

But of even broader concern is the changing climate.

Over the past five summers in Taebaek, there were about 20 days when maximum temperatures topped 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 the agency’s data.

Cabbages require temperate conditions for optimum growth. But in addition to contending with warmer weather, growers face increasingly frequent extreme events, including heavy rain and typhoons, that can destroy a season’s earnings.

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

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Jeon Sang-min, a distribution manager at Taebaek’s agricultural co-op, said cabbage production in the region has been declining over the past decade. With an eye to climate change, he has been looking into alternative fruit and vegetables that can “bear up against the erratic weather.” He worries that farmers may need to switch to “subtropical crops” in the near future.

Some growers in Taebaek are already abandoning cabbages in favor of apples. South Korea’s apple orchards, traditionally found in southern Gyeongsang province, have been appearing in more northerly climes and at higher altitudes.

Notwithstanding the jump in market prices for Napa cabbage, Roh and his fellow farmers are running at a loss this year because of massive sunk costs. He sees “towering challenges” in the business and, as a result, has no plans to pass the cabbage farm to his two children.

Some consumers, at least for now, are willing to stomach higher prices. Sung said she still opts for locally produced cabbage for her homemade kimchi, because of “better taste and quality” compared with imports. But longer-term conditions are not in her favor, according to climate models by scientists.

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

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

“Their crisp and mildly sweet leaves make the best kimchi,” he said.