Farmer explores business of bugs
Updated: 2013-11-26 23:08
By ZHAO RUIXUE in Jinan and XU WEI in Beijing (China Daily)
Self-proclaimed insect expert breeds cockroaches for medicinal purposes
Wang Fuming shows some of the cockroaches he breeds on his farm in Jinan, Shandong province. Zong Laisong / China Daily
Wang Fuming spends 8 hours every day with cockroaches — millions of them. He even dines on them, fried, in the belief they can cure his stomach disease.
Although the insect incites feelings of disgust and dread for many people, the 43-year-old businessman in Shandong province has pinned high hopes on them.
Inside two squat concrete buildings near an elevated highway running through Jinan's Changqing district, Wang keeps as many as 10 million cockroaches in sheets of cartons that resemble battery cages on a hen farm.
Wang's insects are Periplaneta americana, American cockroaches, and different from those commonly found in Chinese homes.
"They're not pests. They're beneficial to human beings," he said as he removed a nest from one cage to show visitors. Some of the cockroaches, disturbed by the sudden change of light, scurried onto his hands and arms. "You see, their wings look quite beautiful in the sunlight, don't they?"
Wang supplies cockroaches to pharmaceutical companies, who use them as medicinal ingredients. Scientists say certain parts of a cockroach can enhance a person's cardiovascular functions as well as combat hepatitis B.
The price of dried cockroaches, on average, reaches 150 yuan ($25) per kilogram and farms are steadily spreading in Shandong, Jiangxi, Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.
The largest farm, which occupies more than 2 hectares and has an annual production of more than 1 billion American cockroaches, is owned by a pharmaceutical company in Xichang, Sichuan province.
Wang, who brands himself an insect expert, used to breed ground beetles, also an ingredient for traditional Chinese medicine, for 16 years before he switched in 2010.
"I read books about insects and discovered that cockroaches could be used for medical purposes," he said.
His experience with beetles gave him a valuable insight into cockroach farming, especially regarding keeping a steady temperature and catering to their nocturnal nature.
Raising them was actually easy, as they are so resilient.
"They are tenacious in their survival skills. In fact, it's difficult for them to die in the farming process," Wang said, adding that they are free of any disease.
Nor is feeding them particularly difficult.
American cockroaches can eat all types of food, from vegetables to wheat. They can also survive for 30 days without food.
The difficulty comes from hatching the eggs. He said most cockroach farms hatch about 30 percent of eggs, while his farm hatches about 80 percent.
The business initially drew strong protests from residents in neighboring villages, as they feared cockroaches would infest their homes.
Wang assured them that the cockroaches from his farm cannot survive northern China's harsh winters, as the American cockroach can only live in moderate to high temperatures.
"They are raised in a secluded environment, from eggs to adults. There is no chance they'd leave the farm — absolutely safe," he said.
Liu Yusheng, an associate professor at Shandong Agricultural University and director of the Shandong Insect Industry Association, said the business will boom as the benefits of American cockroaches are appreciated more.
However, Liu said some farmers lack the skills and business connections to raise the insects.
"The market is unique as farmers can only sell the roaches to producers of medicine. Other than that they barely have any economic value," he said.
On the menu
Despite the fact China is one of the largest insect-consuming countries in the world, Liu believes it will be very difficult for the public to change preconceived notions.
People in China have arguably the most liberal palette in the world, and menus often include insects, ranging from locusts and silkworm chrysalis to scorpions and cicadas.
Even so, cockroaches are still on the list of people's greatest phobias.
However, Li Shunan, a renowned expert on cockroach research and director of the American Cockroach International Research Center in the Dali Bai autonomous prefecture, Yunnan province, warned of the risk of eating cockroaches.
"The viruses and bacteria in cockroaches cannot be eliminated during the farming process, no matter how confined the environment is," he said.
Li, who has conducted research on cockroaches for more than 40 years, said cockroach viruses can only be dealt with during the factory production process.
His research has enabled the development of a series of drugs, including those that could help cure stomach ulsers, burns, chronic heart failure and hepatitis B.
He also called on farmers to take a more cautious approach to raising cockroaches as the market is monopolized by pharmaceutical companies.
"The use of cockroaches will be limited as the demand for the drugs will not see a dramatic increase," he said, adding the market is dominated by four companies that produce medicines using American cockroaches.
"The farmers must have proper contracts with the companies before starting the business, or they risk bankruptcy," he said.
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