The main challenge in the scope of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is the development of a sustainable economy based on High Value Agricultural Products (HVAP). Saffron is the highest priced HVAP in the world. Its prize can reach 20,000 €/kg retail. The Saffron crocus (C. sativus Linn) is a perennial, triploid and genetically sterile plant that is only vegetatively propagated via its corms which undergo a period of dormancy. This plant has been traditionally cultivated for its red stigmatic three-branch styles which not only comprise a highly desirable “golden condiment” but also, its second chemical derivatives have been used in medicine for a number of health properties. Adulteration and fraud constitute a main problem of HVAPs, including Saffron, and they must be fought with the development of technological tools based on fine chemistry, molecular biology and applied physics. Saffron is adulterated with a variety of chemical and biological substances. Mislabeling of the country of origin confuses and/or misleads Saffron consumers. Fraud is an enormous problem for the Saffron industry and could comprise its long-term viability. The lost of land surface dedicated to Saffron crop in many areas of Europe has resulted in a corresponding genetic erosion. The sterility in Saffron limits the application of conventional breeding approaches for its further improvement. These facts support the interest of biotech breeding approaches to be useful to increase the genetic variability of the crop. Hence, the creation of a germplasm bank for this species, including wild relatives to broaden the available gene pool useful for genetic improvement of the crop has been a great achievement. Since 2007, the European Commission AGRI GEN RES 018 action has permitted the creation of the World Saffron and Crocus Collection (WSCC), which contains a good representation of Saffron biodiversity (see www.crocusbank.org). There is an urgent need for collaborative research on Saffron OMICS at EU level, since Saffron is a European crop for its cultural and historical background, food-safe tendencies, and commercial quality, prestige of the European PDOs and PGIs, and leadership of the European research teams.
Current state of knowledge
This COST Action proposal aims to the sound “OMICS TECHNOLOGIES FOR CROP IMPROVEMENT, TRACEABILITY, DETERMINATION OF AUTHENTICITY, ADULTERATION AND ORIGIN IN SAFFRON” taking advantage of the germplasm collection (WSCC) created through the EU AGRI GEN RES 018 action “Genetic Resources of Saffron and Allies (Crocus spp): CROCUSBANK, coordinated by Prof. Jose-Antonio Fernández (UCLM). Since 2007, the “CROCUSBANK” action has permitted the creation of the alleged World Saffron and Crocus Collection (WSCC), a unique collection which contains a representation of the genetic variability present in saffron crop and wild relatives at global scale. At present the germplasm
collection, housed at the Bank of Plant Germplasm of Cuenca (BGV-CU, Spain), consists of 454 accessions representing 50 different Crocus species (including Saffron Crocus) and is expected to increase up to more than 600 accessions by the end of CROCUSBANK action (end of 2011). The CROCUSBANK project has initiated the development of –omic techniques for characterisation of Saffron germplasm. Likewise, the international consortium that supports the current COST action has come up to the development of techniques to detect new-generation biological adulterants in saffron, based on DNA fingerprinting (genomics). Additionally, fraud involving the origin of saffron is widely detected. Several Protected Denominations of Origin (PDOs) are established in Europe. To differentiate Saffron of different origins (areas of cultivation and/or manufacturing) based on their physical-chemical or organoleptic features is not easy. Unfortunately mixtures of expensive European Saffron with cheap Saffron are very common. Newly COST action participants are developing –omics technologies for genomic typing of Saffron in PDOs and recognized areas.
Reasons for the Action
There is little background on genetics/genomics and the other “omics” in C. sativus due to the low number of research teams working on these topics. Based on this challenge, an intense coordination is required in order to approach the major fields on Saffron RTD, to achieve synergy amongst experts, to avoid repetition or competition between groups working on the same area, and to contribute to the development of a RTD structure on this field. Just consider that we are dealing with a minor crop that accounts for about 55,000 hectares worldwide, with a production of 60 to 250 t per year, with little or null impact in the agricultural policies of producing countries (with the only exception of Iran), but with tremendous significance in the European agriculture tradition and competitiveness as a High Value Agricultural Product (HVAP). The scientific human power involved in Saffron breeding is petite, with a few dozens of researchers distributed in India, Iran and Europe. In such scenario this "boutique" crop requires global actions. In conclusion, although the COST Action and other EU initiatives start and are developed in Europe, they go beyond European borders and have a worldwide prospect. The final objective is to preserve Crocus biodiversity, to carry out genetic improvement and to protect quality, sustainability, and safety of production of PDO Saffron in Europe, setting example for other producing countries (Iran, India, Morocco, etc).