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Afghanistan Hopeful About Replacing Opium Crops With Saffron

Afghan women sort saffron flowers in Herat, Afghanistan in November.
Afghan women sort saffron flowers in Herat, Afghanistan in November.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- At a sprawling government agricultural research farm in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, workers are now picking tiny purple flowers.

Officials in the region have hailed the experiment so far as a success. They hope that the fields of saffron will soon replace the bright red flowers of opium poppy, which partially fuels conflict in the region.

Noor Mohammad Ahmadi, a researcher at Kokran Agricultural Research Farm, says the region’s climate is ideal for resilient saffron crops, which can withstand temperatures ranging from minus 18 to 40 degrees Celsius (minus 0.4 to 104 Fahrenheit).

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“The soil in Kandahar is fertile because it is river soil, which suits saffron,” Ahmadi told Radio Free Afghanistan. “In addition, the saffron crop fits well into the crop cycles here because it only requires water when other crops such as wheat, pomegranates, and grapes don’t need it.”

As the world’s most expensive spice, saffron has already proved a lucrative crop for Afghan farmers in the western Afghan province of Herat, where fertile soil, mild winters, and dry summers have favored the crop.

For more than a decade, Kabul and international donors have helped Afghan farmers switch to saffron to stop their dependence on cultivating opium poppies, which were considered the best cash crop in impoverished Afghanistan. Saffron cultivation has turned out to be a boon for rural women, who play a major role in harvesting its flowers.

Sayed Hafizullah Saeedi, director of the Agricultural Ministry in Kandahar, says they are hopeful that saffron will swiftly replace opium poppies in the predominantly rural agricultural region.

“The environmental and climatic conditions for saffron are ideal in Kandahar, and our experiments over the past three years show that it is capable of replacing opium poppies,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Luckily saffron needs little water, which is why many farmers in the region are asking us to help them adopt it.”

According to the Agriculture Ministry, Afghan farmers cultivated some 13 metric tons of saffron this year, which is a sizeable increase over last year’s harvest of 10 metric tons. Officials hope saffron will help Afghanistan to become a major global producer of the crop, which would help in ditching its status as the leading global producer of illicit opium.

Saffron, which sells for up to $1,500 per kilogram on Western markets, is a spice used in traditional medicines and various cuisines. It is also used in the production of perfumes.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Mohammad Sadiq Rashtinai’s reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan.