A previous blog entry discussed Afghan farmers and poppy cultivation, a crop that is currently illegal, but has heavy incentives and minimal negative consequences for growing. Indeed, there are probably more negative incentives for not growing poppies in many areas. The international community has long looked for and pushed alternative crops for Afghan poppy farmers. One of the most promising is saffron.
What about saffron? Anyone who has used it in cooking knows it is a wonderful spice, it also has uses as a dye and has promise as a cancer fighting substance. It is the most expensive spice on the market. Not hard to grow in the right conditions, it doesn’t require a lot of water and requires very little in the way of nutrients, hence no need for lots of fertilizer. Harvesting and processing is not easy, but easier and less expensive than growing, harvesting, and processing poppies, according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. The flowers must be picked at the right time, stigma removed and properly dried. After drying, the shelf life is measured in years.
Afghanistan has an ideal climate for saffron growing and has a history of growing
the crop, particularly in Herat Province, which borders Iran. Political upheavals and war severely curtailed this production. In this area Iran is the major producer of saffron and guards this near monopoly jealously. After the Soviets left Afghanistan, Afghan refugees returning from Iran smuggled in saffron corms, some had worked in the saffron fields there and saw it as an ideal crop for back home.
Numerous problems face Afghanistan’s saffron growers. Perhaps the major issue is the narcotics gangs, including the Taliban, that force farmers to produce poppies. Farmers in regions controlled by these groups have little choice.
quality standards and marketing, normal issues for any farmer growing any crop, as well as expertise on growing, harvesting and drying the crop optimally. Marketing is partly affected by the quality issues and impacted by Indian saffron mafias seeking to control prices in India. Due to declining production in India brought on by droughts, pollution and poor irrigation, Indian saffron costs around twice as much as Iranian, according to a March 30, 2010, article in The Daily Telegraph. Iranian saffron costs £1,100 per kilo, according to the article. While saffron can be imported legally into India, smugglers avoid import duties and taxes. Currently, these prices bring far more than poppies.
Given that Indians are smuggling saffron from Iran, and
Afghanistan is closer geographically, it is hard to see why they wouldn’t want to get saffron from Afghanistan. But, I don’t think the Indian mafia issue is as serious to the Afghanistan saffron growing efforts as the Civil Affairs officer may think. There are far more markets than India. Iran has no intention of allowing quality corms into Afghanistan legally or helping a competitor, so the issues boil down to quantity of quality product produced, access to markets and protection from the drug gangs (the gangs will be there regardless of the ultimate fate of the Taliban). Given the US presence here, it would seem that access to markets could be facilitated. Also given the huge amounts of money spent here, agricultural outreach for saffron could provide a huge return on investment for a relatively small amount of dollars. Protection from the drug gangs is another matter, however.
As elsewhere, Afghanistan’s farmers should have the opportunity to choose what they want to grow as their cash crop (they all grow foodstuffs), be it poppies or saffron or watermelons.