Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, and has been used for thousands of years for cooking and medicine. But as Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith reports, farmers in Afghanistan have seen the price collapse.
With the key market in neighboring Iran flooded, farmers say they might have to switch to harvesting poppy (for making heroin) to survive.
One of the world’s leading producers of the spice is Iran, and Afghanistan saffron farmers believe Iran is trying to destabilize their market to crush competition.
“We are trying our best to make Herat poppy-free, but we have a lot of problems with neighboring countries,” said Zabullah Dayen, an adviser at the Ministry of Counter Narcotics, referring to neighboring Iran, which is the world’s leading saffron exporter.
Saffron was first introduced to the arid farmland in Afghanistan 20 years ago. Akbar, one farmer, says he now receives only $1,000 for a kilo of saffron that used to sell for $5,000. Sixty percent of Pashtun Zarghun’s economy centers on Saffron.
NBC News claims Afghan exports of saffron jumped by 14 percent last year, edging out opium poppy production in parts of the country.
According to the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics, in the Western province of Herat, 90 percent of the former poppy farmers had switched to growing the yellow spice.
The increase in saffron cultivation is a result of a concerted effort on the part of the government to persuade farmers to replace their opium crops. Nevertheless, Afghanistan continues to produce more than 90 percent of the world’s opium.
In 2011, the United States spent $1.4 million buying Afghan saffron, more than any other Afghan export, according to the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries.
According to Central Asia Online, the Taliban have warned farmers against switching from poppies to Saffron, and have sent warning letters to farmers, claiming farmers who defy Taliban demands to continue growing poppies “will be killed.”
Qais Wardak, spokesman for the governor of Uruzgan Province, confirmed that residents there have been warned not to grow other crops.
“They (the Taliban) need to purchase arms and explosives in order to keep fighting, so they’re stepping up poppy cultivation,” he added.
“The Taliban have no other choice but to force local people – and this is all to support themselves financially,” Azhar said.
“The militants are trying to eliminate people’s sources of income in order to make them join the Taliban,” Qarar said.
In his book, “Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices,” Andrew Dalby describes Saffron’s aroma as reminiscent of metallic honey with grassy or hay-like notes, while its taste is hay-like and sweet.
Saffron is used to produce a luminous yellow-orange coloring to foods, and is widely used in Indian, Persian, European, Arab, and Turkish cuisines. Confectioneries and liquors also often include saffron.