The featured video, produced by the South China Morning Post, opens with these words: "If cockroaches make you uncomfortable … this could be your worst nightmare." Indeed. Most of us would do almost anything to avoid a daily work environment that involves contact with millions of teeming roaches. In China, however, cockroaches are big business.
A number of Chinese cities contending with explosive population growth are finding cockroaches to be a helpful solution to the ever-increasing problem of food waste disposal. With landfills approaching capacity in some areas, it's roaches to the rescue.
Not only do these pesky insects eat food scraps, but they also are a source of animal feed and an ingredient in some health and beauty products, as well as medicines. Though you may find it hard to believe, cockroach breeding farms in China are the real deal.
Roaches to the Rescue: China's Unusual Urban Waste Disposal System
Cockroaches are big business in China, where, according to Reuters, teeming colonies of them are entrusted with the serious job of devouring tons of kitchen waste. 1 Though the thought of millions of cockroaches together in one location sounds like something from a horror movie, it is actually the foundation of an innovative urban waste disposal system .
The goal: Reduce the amount of food-related garbage deposited in landfills. The issue of food waste is particularly problematic in large Chinese cities with rapidly expanding populations. Because roaches have voracious appetites and are easy to house, they are, it seems, the perfect match for China's garbage problem.
These so-called cockroach farms are maintained in humid, near-dark conditions, which are ideal for the insects. When the bugs eventually die, they are usually transformed into animal feed. On the outskirts of Jinan, for example, the capital of eastern Shandong province, a billion cockroaches are being fed about 50 metric tons of kitchen waste a day.
That's an amount equivalent in weight to seven elephants. With respect to how the garbage makes its way to the roaches, Reuters states: 2
"The waste arrives before daybreak at the plant run by Shandong Qiaobin Agricultural Technology Co., where it is fed through pipes to cockroaches in their cells. Shandong Qiaobin plans to set up three more such plants next year, aiming to process a third of the kitchen waste produced by Jinan, home to about 7 million people."
While some people despise cockroaches and others are disgusted by them, Li Yanrong, general manager of Shandong Qiaobin, sees these hardy insects only for their beneficial qualities. In 2017, Li told China Daily: 3
"We spent six years doing research into using cockroaches after finding that they can feed on kitchen waste and create no pollutants. Using cockroaches to deal with kitchen waste is good for our country and for business. Social problems created by kitchen waste will be eradicated."
Li claims cockroaches are able and willing to devour almost anything. He says they can consume up to 5 percent of their body weight every day. "Cockroaches have been eating plants and organic matter since hundreds of millions of years ago," he said. "They are experts in waste composting." 4
Cockroaches Picking Up Where Pigs Left Off After Swine Fever Outbreak
Li is not the only one enthused about roaches. "Cockroaches are a biotechnological pathway for the converting and processing of kitchen waste," says Liu Yusheng, president of Shandong Insect Industry Association and entomology professor at Shandong Agricultural University. 5
This is particularly the case because it's currently illegal to feed human food waste to pigs in China. Roaches have come to the forefront, in part, due to the Chinese nationwide ban on using food waste for pig feed. 6 That ban, which has fueled the growth of the cockroach industry, came about as a result of African swine fever outbreaks first detected in August 2018. 7
In October 2018, the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs issued a statement saying, "After the provinces with outbreaks and neighboring provinces completely banned feeding of kitchen waste to pigs, the epidemic was greatly reduced, which fully demonstrates the importance of completely prohibiting the feeding of waste [to pigs]." 8
The industry is primed to grow even more as a result of the new laws around pigs and food waste. In the past three years, Liu notes the number of cockroach farmers in Shandong alone has tripled to about 400. "There have been huge developments in cockroach breeding and research in the past few years," said Liu. 9
Novel Uses for Cockroaches Include Health and Beauty Applications
Beyond eating waste, cockroaches are valued for other reasons, including their eggs. Li told China Daily his company can earn 36.5 million yuan ($5.3 million) a year by selling protein feed produced from cockroach eggs. 10 "A cockroach begins laying eggs when it is 4 months old. It lays one egg each week and can lay eggs for eight months," Li said. 11
In addition, roaches are being considered for their potential usefulness in health and beauty products and medications. As presented in the featured video, in Sichuan, a privately held company called Gooddoctor Pharmaceutical Research, established in 1998, is raising about 6 billion cockroaches.
Geng Funeng, president of Gooddoctor, who appears in the video, says he hopes the international science community will one day recognize the value of roaches for medicine.
"Insects are a complete and living organism," Geng states in the video. He told the Sydney Morning Herald he personally eats 10 of them a day. 12 "They contain multiple compounds to benefit our health," he added. "I think the problems in our lives can be better solved with living solutions."
Beyond the use of cockroaches in medications, researchers at Gooddoctor are also investigating the possibility of using roach extracts in beauty masks, diet pills and even hair-loss treatments. 13 Another source says it can be used to treat diabetic ulcers and severe skin wounds . 14
"The essence of cockroach is good for curing oral and peptic ulcers, skin wounds and even stomach cancer," asserts Wen Jianguo, manager of Gooddoctor's cockroach facility. 15 According to Reuters, "At Gooddoctor, when cockroaches reach the end of their life span of about six months, they are blasted by steam, washed and dried, before being sent to a huge nutrient extraction tank." 16
"They really are a miracle drug," Liu added. "They can cure a number of ailments and they work much faster than other medicine." 17 In 2013, Liu told The Telegraph a cream made from powdered cockroaches had been used in some Chinese hospitals as a treatment for burns and for cosmetic facial masks in Korea. 18
Beyond that, The Telegraph reported a syrup invented by a drug manufacturer in Sichuan promises to cure duodenal ulcers , gastroenteritis and pulmonary tuberculosis . 19 "China has the problem of an aging population," said Liu. "So, we are trying to find new medicines for older people, and these are generally cheaper than Western medicine." 20
Cockroaches Used to Feed Chickens and Humans
At Shandong Qiaobin, Li and his employees bake and mill dead cockroaches into high-protein powder that is added to chicken feed . He claims the powder has been found to "reduce body fat and boost immunity in the 1,000-plus chickens he has raised." 21
The South China Morning Post calls out the high protein content of cockroaches, suggesting they can be useful as food not just for animals, but humans as well. 22 Consumer Reports notes the use of insect protein in energy bars and other food items sold in the U.S. In a 2014 review of such products, they stated: 23
"[T]he cricket products popping up on store shelves in the U.S. don't contain insects that are rounded up in the wild. These critters are raised on domestic cricket farms, where they are fed a grain-based diet. They're dried or roasted and then milled into a fine flour. About 40 crickets are packed into an average snack bar."
According to Liu, restaurants in major cockroach-farming provinces like Shandong, Sichuan and Yunnan already sell cockroach dishes for human consumption. 24 Very often, he notes, molting cockroaches are seasoned with salt or spices and then deep-fried or stir-fried.
Although nobody has made a commercial venture selling edible cockroaches on a large scale, Liu said he believes businesses will soon make the move. "They can easily mill the molting cockroaches and make flour with them," he said. 25
Given the increasing interest in insects as food, in May 2018, the 2nd International Conference "Insects to Feed the World" was held in China to discuss the role of insects in helping to sustain human life and promote nutrition. 26
In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (U.N.) published a report suggesting people start eating insects as a possible solution to global food shortages. 27 As for the types of insects most commonly eaten for food, the U.N. notes the following breakdown: 28
Beetles (Coleoptera) — 31 percent
Caterpillars (Lepidoptera) — 18 percent
Bees, wasps and ants (Hymenoptera) — 14 percent
Grasshoppers, locusts and crickets (Orthoptera) — 13 percent
Cicadas, leafhoppers, planthoppers, scale insects and true bugs (Hemiptera) — 10 percent
Termites (Isoptera, also known as Blattodea ) — 3 percent
Dragonflies (Odonata) — 3 percent
Flies (Diptera) — 2 percent
Other orders — 5 percent
As members of the same order as termites, cockroaches rank No. 6 on the list of most commonly eaten insects. You can learn more about the U.N. report by checking out my article " Eat Insects, Save the World ."
Speaking of roaches as a food source, more intriguing still is the notion of cockroach milk as a potential super food. Yes, that's right, cockroach milk. A certain type of cockroach (Diploptera punctata), found mostly in the Pacific Islands, is the main source of this bug beverage.
A 2016 study 29 , 30 from India asserts cockroach milk contains more than three times as much energy as cow's milk. That said, the researchers indicated there is a lack of evidence roach milk is safe for human consumption, so further investigation is needed.
To learn more about this, you may want to read my article " Cockroach Milk — The Most Nutritious? " Roach milk aside, the potential for other roach-inspired food products has captured the interest of at least one cockroach farmer in Sichuan province's rural Yibin city.
He sells about 22 pounds of cockroaches a month to two local restaurants, where they are used in various dishes. Says Li Bingcai: 31
"I plan to produce food products like cockroach meatballs and cockroach flour in two years. I've always wanted to make food products from the beginning. People were scared of [cockroaches] at first, but now so many are eating them. The taste is special and they are full of protein."
Cockroaches Are a Lucrative Business in China
While it is clear there is money to be made across the board with cockroaches and cockroach breeding farms in China, it seems operations focused on using roach extracts for medicinal purposes are among the most lucrative.
As reported by The Telegraph, 32 Wang Fuming operates a cockroach farm in China's Shandong province, where he houses more than 22 million of the insects in concrete bunkers in the suburbs of Jinan. Wang raises the American cockroach (Periplaneta americana) exclusively and sells his output to pharmaceutical companies for top dollar.
Previously, Wang says he bred a particular type of wingless, flightless cockroach (Eupolyphaga sinensis) whose dried body is prized in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
The increases in demand for the American cockroach are such that from 2011 to 2013 he claims to have quintupled production to more than 100 tons a year. "There are hundreds of species of cockroaches, but only this one has any medicinal value," says Wang." 33
According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Gooddoctor's 2017 sales amounted to 6.3 billion Chinese yuan ($914 million). Their best seller, worth $1 billion yuan ($145 million), was a cockroach-containing "Recovery New Potion" that can be consumed orally or used on your skin.
While using legions of cockroaches as waste composters or as food and medicine continues to make news in China, most people in the U.S. and other Western nations still consider this insect as nothing more than an unwanted pest.
Unless you are looking to shock your family or friends by eating cockroaches, I recommend waiting for researchers in China and elsewhere to further develop the science around how cockroaches may benefit human health.
The absence of grocery stores is, in turn, a direct result of a history of racial discrimination by banks that have been less likely to lend to African American entrepreneurs and by supermarket chains that have tended to bypass black neighborhoods." How a near-total diet of ultra-processed food affects health and longevity can be seen in the city's mortality statistics.