The Price of Saffron
As the most expensive spice in the world, saffron is an extremely lucrative product. With limited production and growing demand, the spice has become increasingly vulnerable to adulteration and counterfeits. A look into the darker side of the prized spice reveals systemic problems in the spice supply chain.
Saffron is a dried spice originating from the lilac crocus sativus flower, commonly known as the ‘saffron crocus’. The delicate red saffron threads are part of the flower’s stigma and style, which form part of a female flower’s reproductive system. Its vivid colour, and its floral and earthy flavour profile render it a much loved spice in global cuisine. Saffron gifts paella its distinctive floral flavour and imbues the beloved French Bouillabaisse with its aroma.1
Traced back to the 1500s, saffron was initially produced in Iran and India’s Kashmir region, and was highly prized for its now proven medicinal benefits, which includes alleviating depression, treating genitourinary issues and protecting the retina.2,3 Saffron’s almost noble status also meant it was used to dye many royal garments, while Buddhist disciples in India also chose saffron as the official colour of their robes.4 Today, while saffron is more highly prized for its culinary uses than as a sign of status, but the exclusivity has created a volatile market that is ripe for exploitation.
Why is saffron so expensive?
The unique climatic conditions needed to grow saffron are a reason for it's cost. Iran has capitalized on demand to become the largest saffron producer, producing 95% of the global market share.
Priced between €7 to €9 per gram for the highest quality saffron, the spice is considered the most expensive in the world. Its growing demand is reflected in the growth in value of Iranian Saffron, which rose from €99.8 million in 2012 to €231.9 million in 2018.5,6 This is despite stringent sanctions imposed by the US on Iran since 2010 as a result of its nuclear activity; the sanctions prevented the import of certain food items, including saffron.7
Globally, the demand for saffron is also forecasted to grow. By 2028, the saffron market is expected to be worth €637.9 million.8 The astronomical price of the spice results from a combination of its laborious cultivation process, a short harvesting cycle and limited availability.
Short harvesting seasons
One of the reasons for its high price is the short harvesting cycle, which occurs only once per year and lasts only two weeks. Saffron Crocus bulbs are generally planted in late summer and harvested in autumn and usually require three years from planting to produce the first harvestable flowers.5
Each flower contains only three stigmata, found at the centre of the flower. As the saffron threads only constitute a very small part of the flower, it requires approximately 75,000 flowers to cultivate just 0.45 kg of saffron. The delicate nature of this process also means that stigmata are entirely handpicked, and then carefully laid to be sun or oven-dried.
Limited growing regions
The unique climatic conditions needed to grow saffron are another reason for its cost. With a naturally suited dry climate and moderate temperatures, Iran has capitalised on the demand for saffron to become the world’s largest saffron producer, producing 95% of the global market share.6 The remaining 5% is produced by other countries including Afghanistan, Spain, France and Italy - all of which produce saffron in varying amounts and quality that contribute to the global market.6
Saffron’s unique environmental needs also means it is highly vulnerable to weather fluctuations. Mohammed Salehi, Founder of Afghanistan saffron brand ‘Heray Spice’, expressed that ‘2021 was one of the worst years for saffron cultivation due to droughts and floods.’ Since climate change is anticipated to bring about more extreme weather events, saffron yield may become increasingly unpredictable, meaning saffron markets will also experience more volatility.
Anatomy of Saffron Inforgraphic by Paulina Cerna Fraga
Is all saffron the same quality?
Not all saffron is created equal. Global variations in quality paired with saffron’s volatile supply and high demand also make the market a breeding ground for counterfeit and adulterated saffron.
Counterfeit saffron is especially common in Afghanistan, Kashmir and Spain, where saffron is considered superior to Iranian varieties, and is therefore sold at much higher prices.9,15 According to a Kashmir government document, Kashmiri saffron is of superior quality because its concentration of crocin, the pigment giving saffron its colour and medicinal quality, is 8.72%, versus Iran’s 6.82%”.9
Intermediaries in the European market have exploited the sanctions on Iran. The intermediaries purchase cheaper Iranian saffron, deliver it to countries such as the Emirates for relabeling, then send the shipments back to Spain. Though this practice is known, it is rarely regulated, since loop-holes in Spanish law enable producers to import saffron from other countries and relabel them as ‘Spanish’.10 The frequency of such incidents is reflected in the discrepancies in Spanish saffron exports and production; in 2019 Spain exported 287269 kg, yet local production amounted to just 1537 kg.16, 17
Today, saffron is one of the most adulterated food products in the world. A 2011 article from UK’s The Independent found that between 40-90% of Spanish saffron was made up of other residues of the plant, instead of the stigma.5 Mohammed Salehi explains, “Sometimes, only 10% is real saffron, the remainder is usually corn silk dyed with food colouring. Safflower, a herb that can be bought at low prices, is also used as a substitute.”
While international standards for dried saffron are governed by ISO 3632, under the spices, culinary herbs and condiments category, the many instances of fraud suggest that the ISO standard is often disregarded or rarely enforced.11,18 Some of the reasons include the vague ISO labelling regulations on product packaging, and the difficulty of ascertaining adulterated saffron during the ISO testing process - allowing fake varieties to circulate the market.14
How can we differentiate fake saffron from real saffron?
Unlike real saffron, which has a subtle taste of honey and a savoury undertone, fake saffron often tastes of chemicals and metals to those with a more distinguished palate. Fortunately, there are ways in which even novices can distinguish fake saffron from authentic versions. Mohammed recommends to ‘Boil it in hot water and let it set, usually saffron never dissolves and will not lose its colour, whereas corn silk’s colour will runoff, and safflower will dissolve and start expanding.’
Photo: Processing Saffron by hand
Social costs of saffron production
Similar to many global food supply chains, inequality is also pervasive in the saffron supply chain. Despite cultivating the worlds’ most lucrative spice, the saffron farmers who painstakingly remove each stigmata from the crocus flower receive only around 1% or less of the sales revenue. This means that for a kilogram of processed saffron, which is priced at €9000-10,000 and could take up to 40 hours of labour to produce, farmers only receive approximately €0.57. Intermediaries, including the saffron middlemen and speculators, are often the main beneficiaries of the trade since they purchase the saffron in bulk and resell to retailers at multiple times the purchase price.12, 19
The gender disparity is also poignant in the saffron supply chain. Most of the saffron cultivation process is done by women. In Afghanistan, the critical step of removing the stigmas from the flowers are exclusively done by women, who often move from village to village to undertake this work.9 In a 2009 study, a saffron business owner stated he preferred female over male workers for their precision, however, he still pays male workers €2.86 while paying female workers €2.09.13
The systemic gender inequalities in countries such as Iran and Afghanistan mean women often cannot fight for their rights to fair pay, and working or living conditions. Not only are they sometimes designated a different space during agricultural farming, they are also often exploited during trading. Salehi highlights, “I need to remind my buyers in Afghanistan that they cannot try to obtain a lower price for the saffron just because they are dealing with a woman”.
Photo: Saffron harvesting
The future of saffron
Luckily, businesses and international organisations are working to fix these systemic issues. Heray Spice works directly with 28 family farms, cutting out the middlemen and paying farmers more than double the average earned by Afghan saffron farmers. Salehi explains, “ This is a win-win, we can uplift the community while ensuring better quality saffron that will not be rejected for contamination.” Several women’s associations have also been launched in Afghanistan providing fair wages, equipment and training opportunities for women.13
Next time saffron arrives in front of us in the form of paella or saffron chicken, permeating our taste buds with a rich golden flavour, it may also be a good opportunity to bring up the problems of the saffron supply chain, so that those carefully remove saffron stigmata can be better appreciated for their efforts to cultivate ‘red gold’.
Stigmata: A stigma (pl. stigmata) is the pollen-receptive tip of a pistil. The ‘pistil’ is a female flower’s reproductive system, it is made up of the ovary, the style and the stigma