Saffron is one of the flavor ingredients for food, cherished for its color, aroma and some health attributes. The alpha crocin and picrocrocin present in this highly valued spice give it the distinct orange color and flavor respectively. Though its use in the orient is manly for its distinct culinary qualities, saffron is also steeped in history with many ancient civilizations recognizing its value for a variety of purposes including as a medicine. The exorbitant price that saffron commands varying from $ 1000 to $ 10000 per kg is more due to the poor yield from organized cultivation and labor intensive nature of the agricultural operations. Leading growers like Spain, Italy, Greece, India, Iran, Morocco report yields between 2 to 29 kg per acre in terms of flowers. Some of the medicinal properties attributed to saffron include increased immunity, resistance to cold and asthma, maintaining skin health, protection against such ailments as Alzheimer's disease, cancer, cardiac problems, etc. Many of these claims are not backed by irrefutable scientific proof though many firmly believe them. In countries like India there is prevailing belief that consumption of saffron by pregnant women assures birth of babies with light skin color. Saffron, known locally as kesar along with almond (badam) is a sure combination for good health, especially for aged people of the upper income group. It is unfortunate that saffron still boasts of its ancient history to bolster its claim instead of scientifically tenable supportive findings. What will kindle the interest of the scientific community in saffron is a million dollar question.
One of the reasons for absence of reliable scientific data could be the relatively small production, almost stagnating for years and the narrow clientele that patronizes its consumption. Added to this is the high cost that discourages many from using it in culinary preparations. Probably this situation may change if saffron production picks up in an area not known so far as a saffron country. Afghanistan, in south Asia is known to day, more for the Taliban insurgency and Poppy cultivation and it is considered as the biggest source of psychotropic drugs produced from Poppy clandestinely, being traded all over the world. The drug money so generated are fueling the war currently raging in that country. 90% of opium and heroin production comes from Afghanistan. In a recent move the government in Afghanistan is actively encouraging the Poppy farmers to switch over to saffron which can be very lucrative at to day's market prices. Being Islamic in beliefs, the farmers consider profit from saffron cultivation is 'halal'and there fore does not violate the religious sentiments. In its well thought out strategy government is distributing saffron bulbs to those farmers agreeing to uproot their Poppy plants with technical assistance to obtain good yield. With a program to distribute 49 tons of bulbs this year and more than 1000 farmers registered for taking up saffron cultivation, it is a matter of time before Afghanistan can show the world the resilience of its farming community in no uncertain terms. The yield is as high as 12 kg per hectare which fetches $1500 in the market in Herat. With financial assistance from UK, new entrepreneurs are emerging to set up processing, packing and branding the saffron produced for large scale export. Only uncertainty is how far the drug cartels who are holding the country to ransom will permit this transition to take place though government protection.
Incidentally there is a connection between saffron cloths worn by Buddist Monks and Hindu Priests, which has to day become a political symbol of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India. Much before the advent of modern day dyes, saffron cloths were thought to have been colored using saffron from which this distinct dress material derived its name. Rising cost of saffron led to use of turmeric, a low cost plant material, to dye such cloths which were less'orangy'in appearance but still accepted readily by the monks and priests. Of course to day almost all saffron cloths including BJP's flags are mill printed to give lustrous fast orange color which do not fade easily.
In a lighter vain, if saffron cultivation takes off in Afghanistan and that country does as well as it is doing with popy, it will truly be saffronization of the country literally.