The Mystery Behind China's Secret Cockroach Farms
Cockroach farming is practiced in China on a massive scale. At present, there are hundreds of cockroach farms in China, with the total number of cockroaches produced annually exceeding the global human population. The insects produced in these unique farms are mostly used in the production of cosmetics and medicines, or for animal feed.
In 2018, Chinese pharmaceutical company Gooddoctor claims that it has earned US$684 million in revenue through selling a “healing potion” made from cockroaches that is used annually by thousands of hospitals and millions of Chinese patients to treat respiratory, gastric, and other diseases.
However, the use of cockroaches in China is not just limited to the pharmaceutical and beauty industries. The protein-rich insects are also processed and fed as an organic meal to poultry farm animals, used to deal with food waste, and are often served in special recipes in some Chinese restaurants.
Why cockroach farming is popular in China?
Cockroach farming is a lucrative business in China. Unlike, traditional animal farming, the cost of setting up a small cockroach farm is low and requires few resources. Moreover, cockroaches breed fast (in just a year, a single German cockroach and her offspring can give birth to 300,000 more cockroaches like them), they rarely fall sick, and they don’t have any special dietary requirements, as they can thrive on easily available kitchen waste.
Wang Fuming, who is among the major cockroach producers in China, told the LA Times in a 2013 interview, "I thought about raising pigs, but with traditional farming, the profit margins are very low. With cockroaches, you can invest 20 yuan and get back 150 yuan."
The world’s largest cockroach growing facility, owned by Gooddoctor, is located in Xichang. A 2018 report reveals that Good Doctor’s AI-monitored cockroach farm produces six billion cockroaches every year. The insects, which are naturally rich in protein, are processed and used in making animal feed and various medicinal products.
Many in China believe these cockroach-based products are effective against scars, baldness, respiratory disorders, gastric problems, and even cancerous tumors. Though there is little reliable scientific evidence that validates this belief, scientists have recently discovered that the cockroaches are able to spend their lives in filthy environments without becoming ill because they produce their own powerful antibiotics. Some researchers believe they might prove valuable in developing drugs to knock out superbugs like MRSA, which are resistant to many existing treatments.
And cockroach-based medicines have long been in great demand in China. Gooddoctor's most popular cockroach-based health product has been used by more than 40 million patients so far.
In an interview with Insider, Wen Jianguo from Gooddoctor claims, "The essence of cockroach is good for curing oral and peptic ulcers, skin wounds and even stomach cancer."
In fact, crushed cockroaches, going by their scientific name Periplaneta Americana can be found listed as ingredients in various types of Chinese medicine and medical cosmetics.
Interestingly, the cockroach business has not just attracted big firms but also small farmers, humanitarians, and entrepreneurs.
Li Bingcai, a cellphone seller turned cockroach farmer from a remote village in Sichuan province, owns a farm that houses more than three million roaches. Li claims to make a good profit by selling dried cockroaches to pig farms, fisheries, and drug companies. In 2018, he told Business Insider, "People think it's strange that I do this kind of business but it has great economic value, and my goal is to lead other villagers to prosperity if they follow my lead”.
The Zhangqiu district in Jinan city is home to another large cockroach farm, which was initially built to deal with the problem of kitchen waste but later also became a source of organic feed for farm animals. A green entrepreneur, Li Yanrong, is the owner of this farm and he believes that cockroaches can be used as a healthier and protein-rich food alternative for fishes, poultry birds, pigs, etc.
According to Yanrong, "If we can farm cockroaches on a large scale, we can provide protein that benefits the entire ecological cycle. We can replace animal feeds filled with antibiotics and instead supply organic feed, which is good for the animals and the ground soil". He says that the cockroaches on his farm feed on 50,000 kg of kitchen waste on a daily basis, so the insects are proving to be very useful in processing food waste that would otherwise end up in landfills.
Risks associated with cockroach farming
Imagine a farm with millions of cockroaches is mistakenly left open and soon you see the city roads are crowded more with cockroaches than humans. How would you feel? You will probably run for your life cursing the cockroach farm owner. In 2013, a similar incident happened in reality when a greenhouse nursery in the Dafeng district of China was damaged by an unidentified culprit.
Due to the damage, more than one million cockroaches escaped and infested nearby cornfields, houses, and buildings. The locals in the area panicked after seeing thousands of cockroaches around them. In order to control the infestation, the Jiangsu Board of Health had to conduct a large-scale disinfection drive in the area.
To prevent a similar unfortunate event, the farm run by Gooddoctor is equipped with a moat filled with cockroach-eating fish.
Cockroach farming is not a widespread practice, normally people see cockroaches only as pests who spread diseases. If they find a cockroach farm nearby them, they might file a complaint because there is always the risk of a catastrophic cockroach infestation from a cockroach farm (like the one that happened in 2013).
This is the reason why many cockroach farms in China operate in a secretive manner. You are not likely to find a facility with “cockroach farm” or “cockroach factory” in its name or on its signs. Neither you will find mentions of cockroaches being used as an ingredient in the promotional material for cosmetic and medicine companies.
Cockroach farming is not an illegal business practice in China but if any such business setup somehow gets too much public attention, or is found to be located in a densely populated residential area. There is a possibility that the farm owner may face various problems in running the business.
However, despite these risks and concerns, cockroach farming is still being seen as a profitable venture by many companies and entrepreneurs in China. Meanwhile, other roach-based products, like cockroach milk (produced by the Pacific beetle cockroach and touted by some as a "superfood") are gaining popularity in different parts of the world and researchers are trying to figure out more such ways to make cockroaches more useful.