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Global warming forces Kashmir farmers to grow saffron indoors – RFI English

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

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Research is in full swing in Indian-administered Kashmir for controlled cultivation of saffron, which costs up to €4,000 a kilogram and is nicknamed “red gold” because of its vivid colour.

Agriculture scientist Nazir Ahmad Ganai said the “corn” of the saffron plant can be planted indoors but is then transferred outside into the ground, while the challenge now was to complete the entire process indoors.

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

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

“This is our endeavour for the future.” 

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

The prospects of customised saffron farming have drawn an Australian university to collaborate with his state-run institution.

Researchers were also looking at transporting “red gold” to two north-eastern Indian states which have hilly terrain matching Kashmir’s but are much more stable, an agriculture ministry official in Delhi told RFI.

As many as 150,000 flowers must be processed by hand to produce one kilo of saffron, which is used in food, medicines and cosmetics.

Researchers have warned that the slightest change in climate impacts cultivation in Kashmir, where the largest glacier has shrunk by 23 percent since 1962.

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

Smart farming

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

But local cultivators say climate change and pollution from cement factories are stunting production volumes.

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

Abdul Majeed Wani, one of many growers experimenting with indoor cultivation of the fabled spice, said smart farming can help weather the effects of global warming.

A government worker inspects saffron stigma at an indoor plantation facility in Dussu, a spice-growing region near Kashmir's summer capital Srinagar.
A government worker inspects saffron stigma at an indoor plantation facility in Dussu, a spice-growing region near Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar. © Abid Bhat

“The corn must be kept in dark from 1 September and wait for the flower to come after three months, when the plant is re-planted outside,” Wani said, adding that controlled temperatures were also vital.

But the farmer also told local TV he has been cultivating fully blossomed saffron crocuses on indoor racks because of Kashmir’s unpredictable weather.

And scientist Bashir Ahmad Illahi of Kashmir’s Saffron Research Station urged cultivators to closely monitor temperature, humidity and sunlight to maximise their chances of a prime crop in the Himalayan foothills.

‘Triple whammy’

Kashmir’s saffron cultivation shrunk from 5,707 hectares in 1997 to 3,785 hectares in 2010, when militancy and roiling 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 darn militancy… A triple whammy,” said a farmer on condition of anonymity from saffron-growing Pulwama, a hotbed of partisan activity in divided Kashmir, which is also claimed by India’s rival Pakistan.

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

“Right now we are holding out at four kilos,” conceded Ganai.

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