To most people, cockroaches are disgusting pests. To some, the insects are delicious fried snacks. To a few people, they are medicine.
A Chinese farm is breeding 6 billion adult cockroaches a year for medicinal use, the first time in human history that so many of the insects have been bred and confined in an indoor space, according to a report published this week by Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post (SCMP).
The farm, operated by pharmaceutical company Gooddoctor in Xichang city in southwestern China, is equipped with rows of shelves lined with open containers of food and water in a concrete building covering an area of about two sports fields, according to the SCMP. It is kept warm, humid, and dark all year around, with an AI-powered system tracking how individual cockroaches are growing.
Cockroach-rearing is a booming industry in China—pulverized roach powder is patented as a Traditional Chinese Medicine ingredient and cosmetics companies use the insects as a cheap source of protein. There were about 100 large-scale cockroach farms in China in 2013, and farmers could earn as much as $20 a pound, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time. In the case of the Xichang facility, the world’s biggest cockroach farm, the insects are made into a liquid concoction that millions of Chinese patients use to treat respiratory, gastric, and other illnesses with doctor prescriptions, the SCMP said citing a local government report. A bottle of 100 ml of the medicine costs about $4.
Apparently people consuming the medicine may not even know that it’s almost entirely made of cockroaches, because Gooddoctor only lists the ingredient as Periplaneta americana, the scientific name of the American cockroach—the reddish-brown insect that can fly when mature. One patient told the SCMP, “This is knowledge I’d rather live without.”
If, because of a human error or an earthquake, millions of cockroaches are released into nature, it would be a disaster for the near-800,000 inhabitants in Xichang and beyond. In 2013, about a million cockroaches escaped from a farm in southeastern China after someone sabotaged a nursery that was breeding the insects. Local authorities conducted a “large-scale disinfection” and urged residents to stay calm. Local authorities claimed (link in Chinese) that they properly handled the incident.