Global warming forces farmers in Kashmir to grow saffron indoors

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Kashmir farmers are experimenting with new techniques for growing saffron as global warming curbs traditional production of the world’s most expensive spice in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Research is in full swing in Indian-administered Kashmir for the controlled cultivation of saffron, which costs up to €4,000 per kilogram and is dubbed “red gold” because of its bright color.

Agricultural scientist Nazir Ahmad Ganai said the ‘maize’ from the saffron plant can be planted indoors but is then transferred outdoors into the ground, as the challenge now was to complete the whole process on the inside.

“If we could grow in a controlled environment without bringing corn back to the field […] then we can grow saffron anywhere in India,” Ganai told RFI.

“In this way, we can also beat climate change,” said the scientist, who is vice-chancellor of the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Science and Technology.

“It is our effort for the future.”

For centuries, saffron has been grown in fields in Kashmir, in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. © AFP – IRSHAD KHAN

The prospects of personalized saffron cultivation led an Australian university to collaborate with its public institution.

The researchers were also considering transporting “red gold” to two northeastern Indian states that have hilly terrain matching that of Kashmir but are much more stable, a Ministry of Health official told RFI. Agriculture in Delhi.

Up to 150,000 flowers must be processed by hand to produce one kilo of saffron, which is used in food, medicine and cosmetics.

Even the slightest climate change is impacting culture in Kashmir, where the largest glacier has shrunk by 23% since 1962, researchers have warned.

Experts at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology estimate that farmers in southern Kashmir lose up to 70% of their crops in a single season of drought or floods.

Smart farming

With 3,715 hectares under cultivation, India is the world’s largest producer of saffron after Iran.

But local growers say climate change and pollution from cement factories are slowing production volumes.

Market analysts say the quality of Kashmir’s crop, which is considered superior to saffron grown in Iran or Spain and which has higher prices, could also be affected by climate change.

Abdul Majeed Wani, one of many growers experimenting with growing the legendary spice indoors, said smart farming can help overcome the effects of global warming.

A government employee inspects the stigma of saffron at an inland plantation in Dussu, a spice-producing region near Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar.
A government employee inspects the stigma of saffron at an inland plantation in Dussu, a spice-producing region near Kashmir’s summer capital, Srinagar. © Abid Bhat

“Maize should be kept in the dark from September 1 and wait for flower to come after three months, when the plant is replanted outdoors,” Wani said, adding that controlled temperatures were also vital. .

But the farmer also told local TV that he is growing fully bloomed saffron crocuses on indoor racks due to Kashmir’s unpredictable weather.

And scientist Bashir Ahmad Illahi from the Kashmir Saffron Research Station urged growers to closely monitor temperature, humidity and sunlight to maximize their chances of getting a top-notch harvest in the Himalayan foothills.

“Triple Whammy”

Saffron cultivation in Kashmir fell from 5,707 hectares in 1997 to 3,785 hectares in 2010, when militancy and tumultuous protests marked a deadly chapter in the region’s history.

Tensions resurfaced in 2019 when Delhi stripped Kashmir of its statehood and turned the region into a federally controlled territory.

“Pollution, weather and this damn militancy… A triple whammy,” said a farmer from Pulwama, a saffron producer, a hotbed of partisan activity in divided Kashmir, also claimed by India’s rival, Pakistan.

Officials say they have helped boost production from 2.6 kilos per hectare in 2011 to four kilos in 2020, in line with a national saffron mission that hopes to increase yield to 7.5 kilos in the future.

“Right now we’re holding on to four kilos,” Ganai conceded.

Teresa H. Sadler