China has a waste problem. The nation's burgeoning population is producing more food scraps than the nation’s landfills can handle. NewsCorp recently reported that Beijing churns out more than 25,000 tonnes of rubbish every day, while South China Morning Post reported that residents of that city produced 9 million tonnes just last year—a number that is only expected to grow. And in the midst of this garbage crisis, certain entrepreneurial citizens have come up with an innovative new method of urban waste disposal. They’re feeding it to the roaches.
Billions of cockroaches are being farmed and corralled at facilities in China where they’re fed food and kitchen waste by the tonne, Reuters reports. At one such plant—run by Shandong Qiaobin Agricultural Technology Co, located in Jinan, capital of the eastern Shandong province—a billion cockroaches chew their way through approximately 50 tonnes of the stuff a day. The food is dropped off before dawn and delivered to the roaches’ cells via pipes. Shandong Qiabin hopes to set up three more similar facilities next year, and is projecting that they’ll be able to process a third of the kitchen waste produced in the city of some 7 million people.
The operation doesn’t end there, either, with all dead roaches going on to be made into nutritious foods and protein sources for pigs and other livestock. In a country where using food waste as pig feed is banned due to African swine fever outbreaks, it’s a useful solution—“like turning trash into resources,” according to Shandong Qiaobin chairwoman Li Hongyi.
Other breeding facilities around China are cultivating roaches for this very reason: to use as livestock feed. But the much-derided pest is also considered useful as an ingredient in a number of medicines and health products, South China Morning Post reports. One facility in the city of Xichang, in southwestern Sichuan province, has achieved so many “scientific and technological breakthroughs” for its cockroach-breeding program that the provincial government claimed it deserved a national science award.
The farm manufactures a “remarkable” potion made entirely from roaches, which are crushed up in machines after reaching their desired weight and size. Over 40 million patients suffering from gastric, respiratory, and other diseases were reportedly cured after taking the miraculous cockroach potion, and the farm is allegedly selling the substance to more than 4,000 hospitals around China. Chinese medical journals have further suggested that it might be effective in stimulating the regrowth of damaged tissues and treating burns or serious stomach inflammations.
“Our drug has been used in hospitals for many, many years and established an enormous number of fans,” said Han Yijun, a representative of Gooddoctor Pharmaceutical Group in Beijing, who manufactures cockroach-derived medicines. “They all know it’s made from cockroaches. It is a disgusting insect, but there are hardly any drugs on the shelves with the same effect.”
In these ways, the humble roach turns out to be far more than meets the eye. They are a food source, a medicinal ingredient, and “a bio-technological pathway for the converting and processing of kitchen waste” according to Liu Yusheng, president of the Shandong Insect Industry Association. But experts suggest that we should still be wary of our potential new insect overlords: given the implications of what might happen if these billions of cockroaches ever managed to escape their breeding facility prison.
Professor Zhu Chaodong, lead scientist in insect evolution studies at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said that a mass outbreak of billions of cockroaches into the local environment would be a “catastrophe”.
“Multiple lines of defence must be in place and work properly to prevent the disaster of accidental release,” she said, pointing out that the insects multiply rapidly in the right kind of environment and could quickly infest an entire neighbourhood. South China Morning Post reports that there are also concerns the Xichang farm’s intensive reproduction and genetic screening could give the cockroach’s evolution a boost, and produce a an army of abnormally large and virile “super-cockroaches”.
Zhu said this was unlikely to happen.