KABUL -- During the past few years, Afghanistan has steadily increased saffron cultivation, hoping to reduce opium production, choke off Taliban revenues from drug trafficking, and provide a steady income for Afghan farmers.
Saffron, the world's most expensive spice, has the potential to supplant opium and help put the Taliban out of business, the government says.
In 2014, a gram of saffron was worth £5.2 (426.2 AFN) in England, according to the London Telegraph.
Encouraged by such prices, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL) is encouraging saffron production as a substitute for illegal opium production.
During the past 15 years, farmers cultivated 1,020 hectares each year with saffron, the ministry said in a statement on December 19.
In 2016 alone, saffron cultivation has more than doubled because of technical, financial and training support provided by MAIL to Afghan farmers, Minister of Agriculture Assadullah Zamir said recently at a Kabul news conference.
Now, saffron-cultivated land covers 2,811 hectares -- an increase of 250%, he said.
The 1,791 hectares of new cultivation "demonstrates that Afghan farmers are producing more legal produce than ever before", he said.
The government's "aim is to acquaint farmers with the cultivation and harvesting of saffron", he said. "This will help increase the quantity and quality of saffron in the coming years."
Increasing saffron acreage will prevent farmers from producing opium, Zamir said.
"By growing a legal crop, you will make more money, gain government support and work on your land without any fear of law enforcement agencies," Zamir said, addressing farmers directly.
The ministry is determined to assist farmers and provide financial support, new machinery, cold storage, seeds, training facilities and new processing methods, he said.
This continued assistance will pave the way for farmers to export their products, he said.
Good for farmers, good for security
"The Afghan government and farmers see saffron as a good alternative to opium and farmers have successfully made the transition in recent years," Kabul University lecturer and economist Taj Muhammad Akbar told Salaam Times.
Akbar said he appreciated the efforts of MAIL to turn Afghanistan into a poppy-free country and called on the nation to help the government realise this goal.
The dramatic increase in saffron production is not only a major economic and agricultural achievement, but it has significant security implications too, Akbar said.
Ridding Afghanistan of poppies will help dismantle the insurgents and bring stability to the country, as the Taliban and other militant groups rely heavily on funds from opium and other illegal products, he said.
The cultivation of saffron will allow the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) to concentrate their efforts elsewhere and will deprive the enemies of Afghanistan of a major source of revenue, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) said.
The ANDSF are working to bring stability to agricultural areas to ensure a safe environment for farmers to produce saffron, MOD spokesman Brig. Gen. Dawlat Waziri told Salaam Times.
"We are sure that if our farmers produce saffron, the insurgents and Taliban will lose a big source of funding from poppies," he said.
A potential economic lifeline
Saffron cultivation is both land and labour intensive, said Faraidoon Khwazoon, a spokesperson for Afghan government Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Increasing saffron cultivation therefore could "create jobs for hundreds of thousands of Afghans", he said, describing saffron as maybe the "perfect crop to boost Afghanistan's fragile economy and provide an alternative to the poppy harvest".
Kabul-based engineer Noorulhaq Hakimi, an agriculture specialist who works with the government, said he is teaching farmers how to grow high-quality saffron.
"If the people know the [financial] benefits of saffron, each household will sow saffron seeds," he predicted.
In Herat Province two years ago, about 6,000 people -- 4,000 of them women -- were employed in saffron farming on 325 hectares of land, with the product exported to India, Europe, the United States and elsewhere, according to AFP.
Herat Province resident Haji Rahmatullah, who used to grow poppy, is now happy to produce saffron.
When he produced opium, he perpetually ran afoul of authorities and had to abandon his crop several times, he recalled.
In the past two years, "cultivating saffron has brought us the same money that poppies did," he told Salaam Times.
"Since I began growing saffron 15 years ago, I've become a national-level trader," he said with a smile. "I became so wealthy [from saffron production] that I was able to complete the Hajj to Saudi Arabia and I bought more land [to cultivate more saffron]."