The Multimillion-Dollar Saffron Industry in Iran
Author : Mahsima Khaamooshi | 2024 Feb 25

The Multimillion-Dollar Saffron Industry In Iran

Saffron is a very profitable condiment and the costliest spice in the world. Due to its restricted supply and rising demand, the commodity is more susceptible to adulteration and counterfeiting. A closer examination of the product's great glamorous side finds structural issues with the supply chain. Dried saffron, also called the "saffron crocus," is the original crocus sativus bloom. The stigma and style of the flower, which are components of a female flower's reproductive system, include the fragile saffron threads. Its bright color and delicate floral and flavor profile make it a popular spice in many cuisines worldwide. Persian Tahchin (a delicious Persian dish made from rice and spicy yogurt) gains its unique flowery flavor from saffron, imparting its aroma to Sri Lanka cardamom. 

Saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, originated in the central area of Asia around 2500 BC. It was valued for its medicinal uses, such as improving mood, treating urinary problems, and protecting vision. Saffron also had a high status and was used to color royal clothes and templates in religious countries. Nowadays, saffron is more appreciated for its culinary uses, but its high price makes it vulnerable to fraud and exploitation. 

Why is saffron so expensive? 

The special climate conditions required to grow saffron contribute to its cost. Iran dominates the saffron market, producing 95% of the world’s supply. Saffron costs between €7 and €9 per gram for the best quality. The demand for saffron is increasing, as shown by the rise in value of Iranian saffron from €99.8 million in 2012 to €231.9 million in 2018. The global demand for saffron is expected to grow further. By 2028, the saffron market will be worth €637.9 million. The high price of saffron is related to the production process, the short harvest season, and the limited availability.

Short harvesting seasons 

One of the reasons for its high price is the short harvest season, which happens only once a year and lasts for two weeks. Saffron crocus bulbs are usually planted in late summer and harvested in autumn. They typically take three years from planting to produce the first harvestable flowers. Labor-intensive, each flower contains only three stigmata, which are found at the center of the flower. As the saffron center constitutes a tiny part of the flower, approximately 75,000 flowers are required to produce just 0.45 kg of saffron. The delicate nature of this process also means that stigmata are entirely handpicked and then carefully dried in the sun or oven. Limited growing regions and the unique climatic conditions needed to grow saffron are other reasons for its cost. With a naturally suited dry climate and moderate temperatures, Iran has capitalized on the demand for saffron to become the largest producer, producing 95% of the global market share. The remaining 5% is produced by other countries, including Spain, France, and Italy, all of which have varying amounts of saffron that contribute to the global market. Saffron’s unique environmental needs also make it highly vulnerable to weather fluctuations. 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. 

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.

Counterfeiting in saffron 

Counterfeit saffron is common in many countries, where it is considered superior to Iranian varieties and sold at much higher prices. According to a Kashmir government document, Iran’s saffron is of excellent quality because it concentrates crocin, the pigment that gives saffron its color and medicinal quality, compared to others. 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, and then send the shipments back to Spain. Though this practice is known, it is rarely regulated since loopholes in Spanish law enable producers to import saffron from other countries and relabel them as ‘Spanish.’ 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.

Today, saffron, one of the most popular food products in the world, is under adulteration. A 2011 research from the UK’s The Independent found that 40-90% of Spanish saffron consisted of other plant residues instead of the stigma. That means only 10% is real saffron; the remainder is corn silk dyed with food coloring. 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. Some reasons include the vague ISO labeling regulations on product packaging and the difficulty of ascertaining adulterated saffron during the ISO testing process - allowing fake varieties to circulate the market.

How can we differentiate fake saffron from real saffron?

Unlike real saffron, which has a little bitter taste, 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. Some producers recommend boiling it in hot water and letting it set for the brew in a few minutes. Usually, saffron never dissolves and will not lose color, whereas corn silk’s color will run, and safflower will dissolve and start expanding. Social costs of saffron production are similar to many global food supply chains; inequality is pervasive in the saffron supply chain. Despite cultivating the world’s most lucrative spice, the saffron farmers who painstakingly remove each stigma 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 labor to produce, farmers only receive approximately €0.57. Intermediaries, including the saffron intermediaries and speculators, are often the primary beneficiaries of the trade since they purchase the saffron in bulk and resell it to retailers at multiple times the purchase price. In the saffron supply chain, most of the saffron cultivation process is done by young women.

In a 2009 study, a saffron business owner preferred female over male workers for their precision. However, he still pays male workers €2.86 while paying female workers €2.09. The future of saffron Luckily, businesses and international organizations are working to fix these systemic issues. flonita Spice works directly with more than 200 family farms, cutting out the intermediaries and paying farmers more than double the average Iran saffron farmers earn. The chairman of Flonita Saffron explains this is good for everyone involved; 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 Iran, providing fair wages, equipment, and training opportunities for women. Next time saffron arrives in front of us in the form of paella or saffron chicken, permeating our taste buds with a rich golden flavor, it may also be an excellent 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 comprising the ovary, style, and stigma.


Mahsima Khaamooshi

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