The People’s Republic of China (PRC) seems to be in the news all the time. For all kinds of reasons. Gone are the days when people could make fun of China by passing sly comments about the dubious nature of Chinese products or fudged economic data. China has successfully upended President Donald Trump in the latest round of the global trade wars. Beijing has also become a heavy hitter when it comes to innovation. In September of 2018, the US House of Representatives passed a bill to help American companies match the quantum computing capabilities being developed in China. It seemed that the Americans were alarmed by the revolutionary potential of this technology and the gigantic strides being made by the PRC. Chinese investments in projects across Africa and Asia (as part of the ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative) have become a staple of television debates in India. Chinese companies have unseated European and American rivals in markets across Asia (and not just by selling cheap, as is demonstrated by their overwhelming dominance in India’s smartphone market). The Chinese state has invested heavily in the development of renewable energy sources.

But this desire to innovate can manifest itself in the most unusual ways. A good example is the industry that has developed around ‘cockroach farming’. Who would imagine that breeding one of the world’s least loved critters would become a burgeoning industry in the world’s second most powerful economy? There is a farm in Xichang run by the Good Doctor Pharmaceutical Group that raises six billion cockroaches using Artificial Intelligence technology. The insects are processed to manufacture a wide range of products – healing potions, beauty products and animal feed. While the idea of using cockroaches as a source of medicinal and therapeutic compounds might not go down well with many Indians they would definitely appreciate the idea of utilizing the bugs for waste disposal. And that is exactly what many Chinese are using those billions of farm-raised insects for – to chomp through waste. The millions of tons of kitchen waste generated by households and hotels across urban China are a formidable problem. One which these creepy-crawlies are devouring with apparent relish. In the city of Jinan, a team of 300 million cockroaches dispatches 15 tonnes of food waste every day. A low cost, environment-friendly and efficient technique. But it’s not all hunky-dory. The cockroach farming business is poorly regulated and secretive in nature (on account of the negative reactions it draws from neighboring establishments and residents). And the scary possibility of the insects escaping, something that did happen when a million cockroaches staged the ‘Great Escape’ after a farm was demolished by unsuspecting construction workers in Jiangsu Province.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is a plate from ‘The Naturalist’s Library’ (1840). It was edited by Sir William Jardine. The plate shows two species of cockroaches (Order Blattodea) and one species of praying mantis (Order Mantodea). Cockroaches and mantises are closely related and belong to the Superorder Dictyoptera.