In India, you’ll find it in sweets like candy and ice cream. If you travel to Europe, it will be in your savory dishes, such as Italy’s risotto and Spain’s paella. In Scandinavia, it is in a traditional bread baked on the day of St. Lucile, and in the Middle East you can’t have a good cup of coffee in Saudi Arabia without this ingredient and some cardamon mixed in.i What is this floral spice that is so diverse in its application? It is saffron, and it is a good thing that a little bit goes a long way. Also known as “red gold”, this thread-like spice that is cultivated from the stigmas of the purple saffron crocus is pound-for-pound the most expensive food on earth. Truffles? Far behind. Caviar? Not even close. High quality saffron will set you back upwards of $10,000/lb. making this a billion dollar a year industry.ii
Several factors make this spice so precious. It is very particular about the environments in which it will grow. 95% of the world’s saffron is grown in Iran, while Spain, Greece, Morocco, and India also cultivate it.iii The production of the spice is labor-intensive which greatly drives up its price. Human hands must be involved from the planting to the pollination to the harvesting. The flowers only bloom once a year, and they must be picked at precisely the right time for the quality to be exceptional.iv Even then, the yield per flower is very low. It takes around 1,000 flowers to produce one gram of saffron.v
So far, there has been no way around the high-end price for this luxury ingredient. There are bargain brands available, but most of them are not real saffron. As with everything that costs a lot, the black market is great and is filled with every kind of fake component imaginable.vi Then, last year, when it seemed that this spice would be perpetually relegated only to special occasions and high-end users in stepped Israeli ingenuity with a solution to the problem.
Saffron Tech was founded in 2020 as a subsidiary of Seedo, an Israeli company that produces devices for growing plants and herbs indoors.vii Rather than the typical outdoor horizontal footprint that saffron production necessitates, Saffron Tech has moved the cultivation indoors and made it vertical. Row after row of seedlings are sprouting in Saffron Tech’s climate-controlled facility. AI technology provides monitoring of the health of every plant allowing for the specific needs of each temperamental flower to be addressed. As a result of this floral pampering, Saffron Tech has been able to produce two blooms this past year instead of the usual one, and feels they are on their way to three harvests this next year.viii
The Israel Innovation Authority, a division of the Ministry of Economy, sees so much potential in Saffron Tech’s techniques that they have awarded a NIS $3 million ($930,000 USD) grant to the company encouraging them to expand their R&D in vertical farming technology. David Freidenberg, CEO of Saffron Tech, sees this award as a badge of honor, saying, “Saffron is just the start and this generous grant will help us further in our business plans.”ix
While expanding saffron production and bringing down its costs may not be life-changing to most, it is another example of the way Israeli technology is impacting the way the world does things. As the cost decreases, the uses for the floral spice will spread. Already it has applications as an antioxidant, in cosmetics, as a natural medicine, and in dyes for textiles. When it comes to the cutting-edge work of Saffron Tech, what began with a luxury spice could soon spread to other crops, including staple foods, allowing greater production using less water while removing the need for harmful pesticides and weed killers.x
i Stradley, Linda. “Saffron – Crocus Sativus – Spanish Saffron.” What’s Cooking America, 8 Oct. 2016, whatscookingamerica.net/saffron.htm.
iii AgFunderNews. “Company Looks to Spice Things up by Growing SAFFRON INDOORS.” Greenhouse Grower, 15 June 2021, www.greenhousegrower.com/crops/company-looks-to-spice-things-up-by-growing-saffron-indoors/.
v “Tech.” Saffron, saffron-tech.ag/.
vii NoCamels Team. “Saffron Tech Awarded Grant from Israel Innovation Authority.” NoCamels, 12 Aug. 2021, nocamels.com/2021/08/saffron-tech-grant-israel-innovation-authority/.