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Swapping apples for mangoes: Korea eyes more tropical fruits

Apples, hit hardest by climate change, to lose most of cultivation areas by 2070

Aug. 17, 2023 - 17:55 By Shim Woo-hyun

Seasonal fruits in South Korea could become vastly different in the following decades, as warmer temperatures will gradually reduce cultivable areas for popular fruit crops here. Apples, grapes and pears could slowly fade into the background, while tropical fruits such as mangoes and passion fruit take center stage.

“We may not be able to see the change immediately. But, fruit crops that we will see at discount stores and traditional markets may change in the future. What we call seasonal fruits here may also change,” said Han Hyun-hee, a senior researcher at the Research Institute of Climate Change and Agriculture, a unit under the National Institute of Horticultural and Herbal Science.

According to the institution’s recent report, apples will be most severely hit by the climate shift. Apples will lose most of its cultivable areas in Korea by 2070, except some regions in Gangwon Province, the northernmost province in the country.

“In the past, no one thought of planting apple trees in Gangwon Province, but there are already farmers that grow apples in the region,” Han said.

During the 1980s, most apples were grown in Daegu and its surrounding areas. But now, the biggest apple farms have relocated to regions with higher latitudes, such as Cheongsong, Andong and Yeongju in North Gyeongsang Province, and Chungju, North Chungcheong Province.

Cultivation areas for the Hallabong tangerines, native to Jeju, have moved northward and are currently produced in Naju in South Jeolla Province, Jeongeup in North Jeolla Province and even in Chungju.

Researchers found that when the average temperature rises by 1 degree Celsius, the temperature-suitable locations for existing crops move 81 kilometers north in latitude and 154 meters up in altitude.

Between 2013 and 2022, the average temperature here went up by 0.6 degree Celsius to 24.3 C, from 23.7 C between 1991 and 2000, pushing suitable cultivation areas for existing crops north by 48.6 kilometers.

Subtropical regions, which account for some 6 percent of the country’s total land mass, could increase to account for 55.9 percent in 2050, the report said.

The graphs show the loss in arable land for growing apples from the 2010s to 2070s. (Rural Development Administration)

The areas where seasonal fruits, such as pears, peaches and grapes, are able to grow will shrink as well, the report said. By 2090, peaches and pears won't be able to grow in most places except for some areas in Gangwon Province. Temperature-suitable regions for farming quality grapes will dwindle significantly starting in 2070, it said.

“We are working to develop fruits that are resistant to higher temperatures, but improving traits of fruit crops also has its limits,” Han said.

"In the long run, farmers may have to change their crops," he added.

As the world gets warmer, an increasing number of farmers have shifted to relatively more temperature-resistant tropical fruits.

In Jeju, the southernmost part of the country, farmers have been growing tropical fruits, such as passion fruit, dragon fruit and bananas. Other tropical crops, like papayas and tropical cherries, are also being cultivated in South Jeolla and Gyeongsang provinces, according to the report.

“In Korea, tropical fruits still have to be grown in greenhouses, yet still many farmers are turning to tropical fruits because the cost needed to maintain the right temperature for cultivating them has gotten lower due to the increasing temperature here,” Han said.

The research institute’s report said the number of farms growing tropical fruits in South Korea reached 556 in 2021, up 50 percent from 372 farms in 2017. Land used for tropical fruits also increased to 186.8 hectares, up 70 percent from 109.4 ha in 2017.

By crop, mango is the most widely cultivated tropical fruit as of 2021, with 76.8 ha, followed by passion fruit with 34.6 ha and bananas with 21.2 ha.

One researcher at an agricultural institute located in Jeju has also witnessed the change in fruit preferences. He had gotten inquiries recently from a strawberry farmer asking for a soil analysis to see if his land was suitable to grow mangoes.

Any temperature rise is bound to cause significant changes in the agricultural environment, he said.

"If the temperature goes up further, farmers may not even need greenhouses to grow tropical fruits. The institute is aware of the change and trying to improve traits of fruit crops grown in the region, the researcher said.

"Another effect of higher temperatures, especially during the winter, also includes increased risks of damages from insects and plant diseases," the official added.