CHANDHARA, India (AlertNet) – For seven generations, Abdul Khalik’s family has cultivated saffron in the foothills of the Himalayas. The 65-year-old is one of several hundred farmers in his village south of Srinagar, the summer capital of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, who grow the delicate crocuses that produce the world’s most expensive spice.
Jammu and Kashmir’s climate has made it well suited to the complex growing and blooming cycle of the saffron crocus, and the state is the only one in India that produces saffron. The crop, growth since the 16th century in the area, is sold domestically and exported for use in food flavouring and colouring, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and dyes.
But erratic rain and snowfall, likely related to climate change, have played havoc with the flowers, cutting Khalik’s yields by almost half over the past 15 years.
With seven mouths to feed at home, “I have no choice but abandon my family’s calling,” says the despondent farmer.
In 1997, saffron covered 5,700 hectares (about 14,000 acres) of Jammu and Kashmir, but the cultivated area has now dropped by half. Over the same period the saffron yield has fallen from 3.1 kg per hectare (about 2.8 lb per acre) to 2.3 kg per hectare (2 lb per acre).
Changes in temperature and rain patterns since 1999 have had a significant impact on saffron production, according to Firdos Nehvi, a professor of plant breeding and genetics at Srinagar’s Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Science and Technology (SKUAST).
Nehvi says that over the past dozen years, annual precipitation has declined from 80 to 100 cm (31 to 39 inches) to 60 to 80 cm (24 to 31 inches).
“Not just the quantity but the seasonal pattern of rainfall too has changed, because the (previous) temperature pattern has changed,” Nehvi says.
Since 1999, the average temperature in early spring has risen by several degrees, and the resulting evaporation from melting glaciers brings rainfall in March that used not to occur until the early summer.
Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, an associate professor in the geology and geophysics department at Kashmir University, ascribes some of the responsibility for melting glaciers to high levels of particulate pollution from industrial units and cement factories operating in the Pampore saffron belt since the early 1980s.
“Impurities like cement dust and the trapped warm air from industries melt snow faster in this area,” he says.
Nehvi says that rainfall during all six months of spring and summer is now too much for the saffron crocus, which is very sensitive to over-irrigation. Equally damaging is the pattern in some other years, when heavy spring rains continue from March until June but then no rain falls in the summer months.
The saffron crocus bulbs lie dormant after each year’s harvest, and they require at least four short showers each month from July until September in order to grow new roots.
“Over the last three years, Pampore has not received the rooting time showers on schedule,” says Mubarak Ali Rather, a farmer from the village of Hatiwara who has grown and traded saffron for 20 years.
Nehvi adds that when rain does fall in the later season, it can last for several days at a time, raising the humidity to a level where fungal rot attacks the underground crocus bulbs.
Saffron flowers are normally harvested in October and November. Cutting the saffron flowers and hand-picking and drying the stigma and stamen are tasks traditionally done by women and children.
“Flowers must be cut within three days of blooming, but sometimes in recent years sudden short bursts of rains devastate the flowers before we can pick them,” said farmer Meema Banu.
The temperature at harvest time is equally important to the success of the crop. Changes in the climate have caused a shift in the flowering cycle to November, when temperatures are several degrees lower than optimum for the crocus.
“As a result, the bloom ‘aborts’ – it shrivels and the stigma cannot grow to its full length,” explains Nehvi.
Saffron is a multimillion dollar industry in India, but the country’s 6.5 tonne annual production is a distant second to that of Iran, which produces 174 tonnes a year – 89 percent of global production.
As domestic supplies dwindle, smuggled Iranian saffron is taking over the Indian market. In response, some Indian traders have resorted to adulterating locally grown saffron with synthetic materials, with drastic consequences for the reputation of domestic saffron – and for its price, which has hit all-time lows.
In 1999, saffron fetched 33,000 Indian rupees per kg ($685). Current prices offered by middlemen to farmers in Chandara are no higher than 8,000 rupees per kg ($166).
To address the crisis, the federal Ministry of Agriculture has budgeted $77 million to assist in the economic revival of the Jammu and Kashmir saffron sector.
The revival programme aims to employ scientific techniques to rejuvenate saffron bulbs, as well as to provide groundwater irrigation through bore wells and sprinklers, power tillers, and a high-tech Saffron Park with mechanized processing as well as a testing laboratory and e-trading facility.
The target is to double saffron production by 2014.
Manipadma Jena is a freelance development journalist based in Bhubaneswar, India.