Considered to be an important crop cultivated as the source of spice for at least 3,500 years, Saffron has spread out in Mediterranean and west of Asia from 10 west to 80 east degrees of geographical longitude, as well as from 30-50 north degrees of geographical latitude and up to 1,000 meters from sea level.

The name ‘saffron' is derived from Arabic “zá-faran” which means ‘be yellow' and is commonly used to refer both to the spice and the plant itself. Saffron is used as a key spice, fragrance, dye, medicine, preparation of Kashmiri ‘kehwa' and as a sweet dish seasoning Saffron leaves (with producing about 1.5 t dry matter each year) can provide forage for about 1,60,000 heads of cattle. Saffron petal is one of the by-products of fields that the amount of this by-product is more than 10,000 t each year. One stigma of saffron weighs about 2 mg; each flower has three stigmata; 1,50,000 of flowers must be picked one by one in order to produce 1 kg spice.

Global Overview

Saffron is currently being cultivated in Iran, India, Greece, Spain, Italy, Turkey, France, Switzerland, Israel, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, China, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Afghanistan, Iraq and recently Australia (Tasmania). The world's total production of dried saffron is estimated to be around 300 tonnes a year. Iran produces more than 90 per cent of the world's total production of saffron. More than 92 per cent of Iranian saffron is cultivated in Khorasan province. Kashmir produces between 8-10 tonnes mostly dedicated to country's self-consumption. Greek production is 4-6 tonnes a year. Morocco produces between 0.8 and 1 tonne. Saffron production has decreased rapidly in many traditionally producing countries, and is abandoned in England and Germany. Spain used to be the most reputed saffron producer for centuries in areas of La Mancha and Teruel. Nowadays, the production is only about 0.3- 0.5 tonnes. Productions of Italy (Sardinia, Aquila, Cascia) 100 kg; Turkey (Safranbolu) 10 kg; France (Gatinais, Quercy) 4-5 kg; and Switzerland (Mund) 1 kg are nearly insignificant.

In India, saffron is exclusively cultivated in Jammu & Kashmir until now. Some cases of saffron cultivation have been reported recently in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

In Jammu & Kashmir, district Pulwama accounts for 78.91 per cent saffron area followed by Budgam (12.27 per cent), Srinagar (7.32 per cent) and Doda (1.5 per cent).

Indian Overview

Area under saffron cultivation has declined from about 5,707 hectares (ha) in 1996 to just 3,715 ha in 2009-2010. Productivity has also declined from 3.13 kg/ha to 2.50 kg/ha.

Trends available from trade estimates show that current domestic production is less than 10 tonnes. And owing to this trend, imports into India stand at approx 5 tonnes, 90 per cent of it from Iran.

Two prominent initiatives are going to become game changers for saffron cultivation and enhancement in Kashmir; and are hopeful that by end of the decade, India will recapture the lost glory in saffron production.

The first initiative is the setting up of “National Mission on Saffron” (a 373-crore project up to 2014) and a “Saffron Park” (an Rs 22-crore project) as an integrated production facility in Pampore. Under Mission saffron, growers are given a specified amount to meet fertilisers and pesticides requirements, in addition to guidance and monitoring.

In 2011, the Government has already dispensed Rs 10 crore of the Rs 17 crore of incentives covering more than 3,500 growers owning 350 hectares of saffron land.

The one-time incentive will be extended to all the 3,700 hectares in four years. To improve productivity the replanting of the existing saffron area is being done to get 3,715 hectares of land till 2014 with an average productivity level to 5 kg/ha. It is expected that production would, thereby, rise to 18.50 tonnes. A major part of Mission saffron is also the establishment of a saffron park to provide better marketing facilities to the growers. This park will have a world class quality control laboratory, an e-auction centre and provide global best practices of farm-to-fork” chain for saffron.

Medicinal, health benefits

The active components in saffron have many therapeutic applications in many traditional medicines as antiseptic, antidepressant, anti-oxidant, digestive, anti-convulsant.

This novel spice is a good source of minerals such as copper, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, selenium, zinc and magnesium. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps control heart rate and blood pressure. These active components present in saffron have many therapeutic applications in many traditional medicines since long time ago as anti-spasmodic, carminative, diaphoretic. The flower stigma are composed of many essential volatile oils including ‘safranal' which gives saffron its distinct hay-like flavour, characteristic golden yellow colour and is an antioxidant showing cytotoxicity towards cancer cells, anticonvulsant and antidepressant properties.

There are important antioxidants that help protect body from oxidant-induced stress, cancer, infections, act as immune modulator and generates heat in body.

Business opportunity

One of the world's most expensive spice by weight, saffron is globally sold in grams. Local brands are largely present in India and there is absence of large international/national brands. Iran is the leading saffron exporter earning revenue of $51million. Spain and India are the major importers of Iranian saffron.

India's saffron consumption is estimated at 20 tonnes a year, half of which is met by leading producers - Iran, Spain and China.

Kashmir, one of the only four producers of saffron in the world, barely consumes a fraction of what it produces. Most of its output goes to the plains with exports of just about four tonnes. There is an opportunity for developing a nationwide brand of saffron.Besides, this is a nation where a burgeoning middle class is now craving for a wide range of products with health benefits, which is a big driver for increase in consumption.

Source: YES Bank

(This article was published on February 19, 2012)
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