Vijay Jagtap discontinued sowing safflower (kardi) last year on his one-hectare plot in Baramati Pandhare village, 12 km from Baramati town in Maharashtra. “The price we get for kardi is not at all attractive. A mere Rs 2,500 per quintal,” said the 51-year-old farmer. “Besides, engaging labour to harvest kardi is more expensive than other crops due to its spines.”

Safflower has the highest percentage of good fat and second-lowest content of bad fat. Rich in linoleic acid, it helps greatly in reducing cholesterol levels. Sadly, the urban middle class, its kitchen narrative influenced by TV cookery shows, newspaper columns penned by nutritionists and the aggressive media campaign by FMCG companies is totally unaware of the real heart-friendly oil, safflower oil.

A study, unveiled in January by the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad, which took into account the total polyunsaturated fatty acids, total mono-saturated fatty acids and total saturated fatty acids in as many as 13 edible oils found safflower (kardi in Marathi, kusubi in Kannada) oil as the best cooking medium followed by sunflower oil, mustard oil and soya bean oil.

Falling cultivation

While India has emerged as the largest importer of edible oil, its farmers are abandoning the cultivation of safflower, thanks to low market demand and unattractive price offered to the growers.

In the neighbouring state of Karnataka, the state that leads in safflower cultivation, a similar story unfolds. Veera Reddy, 61, who owns 15 acres of land in Markunda village off National Highway No 65 on the way to Bidar, told, “I have been growing kusubi for several years now but discontinued it as there are not many takers for its oilseeds. As there are no oil pressers close by, I have had to ferry my crop in a lorry to Bidar, a 30 km drive from my village, to get it pressed. I would rather grow sugarcane, jowar or tur and receive a better price.”

Another farmer, 55-year-old Ram Kumar Prajapati, originally from Haryana who migrated to Gujarat’s Kutch about 18 years back and has around 90 acres of farmland in Kanakpur village in Abdasa taluka, explained his reasons for dumping safflower in flawless Gujarati. “I grew kardi on eight acres and made only Rs 8,000 per acre,” he told “Now even the ground water level has reduced further and I don’t have any irrigation facilities. I would rather grow something which fetches more at less expense.”

Ancient crop

One of the oldest oil crops in human history that can withstand drought and low moisture, safflower has been cultivated in Andhra Pradesh as a popular fence crop. Besides the oil, the sharp-needled leaves offer a good defense against the straying cattle. Chevella in Ranga Reddy district and Parigi in Vikarabad district are major centres of safflower cultivation. But here too, things have changed.

The family of Siva Kumar of Kurnaguda village, who have been cultivating safflower for over three decades on 10 acres, has reduced it to a bare two acres. “Now hardly 10% of farmers in our village and neighbouring Chevella and Bodempat villages grow safflower,” the 53-year-old farmer explained. “We begin sowing in October end and harvest in January-February but the lack of irrigation or timely rains is the major limitation to our yield. Moreover, we are able to get a mere Rs 3,000 for a quintal.”

Low returns

Unable to earn a handsome price, and with village-based ghanis (traditional oil pressers) shutting shop due to the paucity of oilseeds, farmers in the country’s arid zones in states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Telengana are discarding the cultivation of safflower (Carthamus tinctorius), a crop which actually doesn’t need much irrigation or care.

At present, safflower occupies a seventh place in the acreage dedicated to oilseeds in India. Maharashtra, Karnataka, along with Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, accounts for 94% of the total acreage and about 99% of the country’s production.

Drastic decline

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the country had 712,500 ha (hectares) under safflower cultivation in 1996-’97, but by 2014-’15 it had come down to only 174,940 ha. Simultaneously, production has plummeted to 90,120 metric tonne from 450,000 MT in the same period. The area under safflower cultivation has slumped by 64% since 1991, while the production has witnessed a fall by 41% during the same period. Though ranked number one in global safflower production, India produces only 29% and is followed by the US (17%), Argentina (13%), and Kazakhstan (12%).

Dwelling on the lack of enthusiasm among farmers for safflower, A Vishnuvardhan Reddy, Director, ICAR-Indian Institute of Oilseeds Research, told, “The chief factors for decline of safflower acreage in the country is the preference of the farmer towards gram (chickpea) primarily due to better market price, assured output market and higher farm-level output.’’

Experts opine that the major reasons for the decline are due to higher remuneration from competing for crops such as sorghum and gram, low price realization as compared to other oilseed crops, comparatively low oil content than other oilseed crops, susceptibility to various biotic and abiotic stresses such as aphids and import of cheap palm oil. Another major cause for its decline is due to the spiny safflower breeds, which involve hiring expensive skilled laborers.

Societal interest

“Farmers need to return to safflower in the larger interests of society and for their own welfare on account of its strength to withstand drought and low moisture,” stresses plant breeder NB Gadagimath of Dharwad-based Sarpan Agri-Horticultural Research Centre, who has to his credit four promising varieties of safflower, both spiny and non-spiny ones which have been commercially tried on large plots on farmers’ field in Karnataka and suitable for mechanical harvesting using combine harvesters. In fact, farmers in Dharwad and Bijapur districts have been successfully making use of Sarpan’s non-spiny safflower varieties.

Interestingly, farmers in rain-deficient Marathwada region of Maharashtra, namely districts like Beed, Osmanabad, Parbhani, Latur, Hingoli, Jalgaon and Ahmednagar, continue to grow safflower despite getting much lesser returns than the Minimum Support Price. Here farmers hire mechanical harvesters to harvest the crop while oil pressers continue to flourish. Beside safflower farmers here grow cotton, jowar, cattle fodder, sunflower, sorghum and green gram. While green gram fetches them Rs 9,000 per quintal safflower a lowly Rs 3,000!

According to Shaji Kakasaheb Shinde, a senior safflower breeder with Mahatma Phule Agriculture University, Sholapur, “Farmers in Marathawada have continued their faith on safflower as it’s easy to grow, needs less irrigation and inputs while additionally fulfilling their need for a cheap and healthy edible oil. But it’s also due to the availability of mechanical harvesters on rent and existence of oil pressers in the neighborhood. ”

While most safflower-growing countries use the oil as a cooking medium, China for centuries has cultivated it as a dual-purpose crop growing it for medicinal purposes too. In Chinese medicine, safflower decoctions are used in combination with various other herbs and additional ingredients to treat menstrual problems, cardiovascular disease, pain and swelling associated with trauma, male sterility etc.

Manifold benefits

Value-added medicinal products from safflower seed, oil, and petals have a great potential in the pharmaceutical industry and are waiting to be tapped. In fact, the ancient Ayurvedic text, BhavaPrakash Nighantu, attributes petals of kusuma of activating the nerve system, treatment for heart arrhythmia, controlling hypertension, providing relief in muscular arthritis and joint pains, regularising the menstrual period and the like.

jcesar2015/via Pixabay [Licensed under CC BY CC0]

“Safflower cultivation can provide a dual income to farmers, as the florets can easily be collected from non-spiny safflower after the crop matures and sold for food and textile dye,” Nandini Nimbkar, president of Phaltan-based Nimbkar Agriculture Research Institute or NARI, a non-profit R&D institute engaged in the field of agriculture, renewable energy, animal husbandry and sustainable development since 1968, told It has so far developed eight safflower varieties, both spiny and non-spiny. Its NARI 96, released this year, has 31% oil content while NARI 57, released in 2015, has 37%.

Added Nimbkar, “The average yield of seed and flowers from NARI’s non-spiny hybrid is 2000 and 150 kg/ha, respectively. The income obtained from the flowers at Rs 800 per kg will be Rs 120,000 per hectare while that from seed would be Rs 60,000 at (at Rs 30 per kg).”

Due to the low price it commands for the growers, it’s very unlikely that safflower will ever become a popular crop among farmers but considering its medicinal and nutritional properties, a niche could be created – a fact policymakers need to take into account if the country wants to arrest its continuous decline.

A Patil, former Director, Indian Agriculture Research Institute, said, “We need to lay emphasis on safflower as secondary agriculture crop whereby products and crops residues or even the main crop is used for extraction of high-value bioactive compounds to save this vintage crop from extinction.”

Hiren Kumar Bose is a journalist based in Thane, Maharashtra. He doubles up as a weekend farmer.

This article first appeared on Village Square.