It is a bit staggering to look at the history of China and see how many people have died as a result of disasters, famine, genocide, and war over the past two millennia. To be fair, death and suffering are common elements in every nation’s history. But, China’s perpetually massive population ensures that the scale of its tragedies dwarfs that of any other nation.
There are several tragic events throughout China’s history that have a death toll which exceeds the present-day population of most countries. Famine, in particular, has claimed the lives of countless people in China, and until fairly recently, were a regular occurrence there. Nearly two centuries of back-to-back famines in China ended in 1961 with the Great Chinese Famine, which caused more people to die of starvation than are currently alive in Canada.
Much of the blame for this tragedy can be placed on the astounding level of incompetence displayed by Mao Zedong’s Communist Party. However, in the decades since then the Party has put a lot of work into ensuring famines, especially of that magnitude, never happen again. The Party has actually been incredibly successful in that regard. For people living in China’s ever-growing urban areas even small-scale malnutrition is more or less unheard of, let alone famine.
To get an idea of how much the food security in China has improved, one need only look at how much food waste is currently being generated by Chinese urban areas. The amount of waste is so extreme that there aren’t enough landfills in the entire country to dump it all in. It was only a few decades ago that these urban areas were struggling to dispose of the corpses of the millions who had starved to death, yet now they struggle to dispose of the food waste created by millions of well-fed people who have more food than they can eat. The latter is definitely the better problem to have but a problem nonetheless, and it’s only going to get worse as the average income of Chinese citizens continues to grow.
The nauseating amount of food waste in the United States shows how wasteful a society can become when it’s so wealthy that food security is something most people don’t even think about. Fortunately, wherever there’s a problem there are entrepreneurs with clever (and profitable) solutions, and this is no exception.
Li Bingcai is one such entrepreneur, and he was so confident in his clever solution that he quit his job as a mobile phone vendor and invested equivalent to nearly $150,000 into what he believes will eventually become a large profitable enterprise. His belief is well-founded too, as his solution has proven to be incredibly successful. According to Reuters, Li plans to increase the size of his operation tenfold in the near future.
So, what exactly is this seemingly incredible solution to China’s food waste problem? Has Li developed a method of turning food waste into an efficient biofuel? Has he found a way to recycle food waste into new food products, or created a system for distributing discarded food to under served communities? Not quite.
As with most entrepreneurial success stories, Li’s solution is simple – and just strange enough that most people wouldn’t have thought of it. The solution? Farm cockroaches, millions of them, and then feed them the waste. That’s it.
Li currently operates two farms in the province of Sichuan (the namesake of the heavily meme’d McDonald’s Mulan Szechuan Sauce) in southwest China where he raises 3.4 million cockroaches. But, he plans to eventually have twenty farms. He feeds his cockroaches the food waste generated by nearby cities. Once they’ve reached the end of their life, he then sells them as feed to fisheries and pig farms. He also sells them to pharmaceutical companies where they’re used as an ingredient in medicine, both real and fake.
I am sure many of us are unfortunately very familiar with how much cockroaches love to eat our leftover food – and how much of a nuisance they can be when they invade your home. However, it’s that voraciousness that makes these pests such an effective and efficient way to dispose of food waste, and Li isn’t the only person to discover this. In fact, his operation is minuscule compared to the likes of Gooddoctor, another Sichuan-based operation, which currently raises more than 6 billion cockroaches. Meanwhile, in the Shandong province on China’s east coast, Shandong Qiaobin Agricultural Technology Co. uses cockroaches to dispose of 50 tons of kitchen waste every day. The company is planning to open three more cockroach-powered, AI-assisted food waste processing plants next year with the intention of processing a third of the kitchen waste produced by the 7 million people living in Shandong’s capital, Jinan. Just like Li, both Gooddoctor and Shandong Qiaobin sell their cockroaches as feed and medical ingredients, but even more uses for cockroaches are currently being researched.
In other countries that generate a lot of food waste, such as the United States, solutions are more focused on reducing how much food is wasted rather than finding more efficient ways to dispose of it. The problem of food waste in these countries is less of a logistical problem caused by the amount of waste, like in China, and more of a moral problem caused by wasting so much food while nearly a billion people all over the world struggle to feed themselves. The United States alone throws out 133 BILLION pounds of food each year, worth about $161 billion according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service.
The Trump administration is making an effort with its “Winning on Reducing Food Waste”, but there’s more that can be done. That being said, the moral situation is even worse in China, unsurprisingly.
Food waste is different in the United States and other developed nations where the vast majority of people living there are well-fed. The moral question for these nations is, “We have more food than we could ever eat, so why aren’t we sharing it with less prosperous nations?” In China, however, this isn’t the case. While the quality of life for people living in China’s cities has improved immensely, especially when it comes to food security, the prosperity of Communist China hasn’t exactly been spread equally, and its rural population has been left behind. The numbers vary from province to province, but there are currently tens of millions of people in China who are struggling to feed their families, and malnutrition is fairly common in these areas.
So shouldn’t the moral question for China be, “Our fellow countrymen are starving, so why are we feeding our excess food to cockroaches?”