In this building, it is warm, humid and dark all year round.
This AI-powered farm is breeding 6 billion cockroaches a year
This multi-story edifice about the size of two football fields is fully sealed off from the outside world, and there are strict limits on visitors.
Long, narrowly spaced rows of shelves fill the space. They are lined with open containers of food and water.
Those on the inside have the freedom to roam, eat and reproduce. But from birth to death, its inhabitants never see the sun.
They are inmates of the world’s largest cockroach farm, which uses AI technology to breed six billion adult cockroaches a year. The colony is larger than the world’s human population – and they are all for medical use.
The cockroaches are the main ingredient in a “healing potion” called Kangfuxinye, which is consumed by millions of patients in China, according to the Chinese government.
There are many cockroach breeding facilities in China. The insects are used as ingredients in medicine or as a source of protein for livestock feed.
But no other facility can match the productivity of this farm run by the Gooddoctor Pharmaceutical Group in the city of Xichang, in southwestern Sichuan province.
Nearly 28,000 full-sized cockroaches per square foot are produced in the facility annually, the Sichuan government said in a report submitted to Beijing early this year.
That makes it the largest colony of cockroaches ever to have existed on the planet.
Rustling in the wind
According to a 2011 report by government newspaper Guangming Daily, a visitor must change into a sanitized work suit to avoid bringing in pollutants or pathogens.
“There were very few human beings in the facility,” the article stated. On shelves, floors and the ceiling, the cockroaches were “everywhere.”
“Hold your breath and [you] only hear a rustling sound,” it continued. “Whenever flashlights swept the room, the cockroaches fled. Wherever the beam landed, there was a sound like wind blowing through leaves.
“It was just like standing in the depths of a bamboo forest in late autumn. The cool breeze blows, and the leaves rustle.”
The project had achieved so many scientific and technological breakthroughs that it deserved a national science award, the Sichuan provincial government said.
The facility has achieved its unrivalled efficiency partly by being controlled by a “smart manufacturing” system powered by artificial intelligence algorithms, according to the report.
The system constantly collects and analyses more than 80 categories of “big data,” including humidity, temperature, food supply and consumption. It monitors changes such as genetic mutations and how these affect the growing rates of individual cockroaches.
AI is changing China in many sectors, from powerful facial recognition systems capable of identifying 1.3 billion citizens in seconds to nuclear submarines that can help a captain make faster, more accurate decisions in combat.
In the cockroach farm, the AI system learns from past work, self-adjusting to improve cockroach production.
Dr Zhang Wei, a former assistant researcher at the College of Mechanical Engineering at Zhejiang University, who was involved in the development of the system, told the South China Morning Post: “There is nothing like it in the world. It has used some unique solutions to address some unique issues.”
Creating the potion
At the time of the government report, the farm had generated a total of $684 million in revenue over the years by manufacturing the Kangfuxinye potion made entirely of cockroaches.
When they reach the desired weight and size, the cockroaches are fed into machines and crushed to make the potion, which had “remarkable effects” on stomach pain and other ailments, said the provincial government.
The potion has a tea-like color, tastes “slightly sweet” and has “a slightly fishy smell,” according to the product’s packaging.
More than 40 million patients with respiratory, gastric and other diseases were cured after taking the potion on doctors’ prescriptions, according to the official report, which stated that the farm was selling the concoction to more than 4,000 hospitals across the country.
Cockroach has been an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. In some rural areas in southern China, infants are still occasionally fed cockroaches mixed with garlic to treat fevers caused by infection or upset stomachs.
The Chinese government has funded national studies into the medical value of cockroaches.
“The potion is not a panacea – it does not have a magic power against all diseases,” said a researcher experienced in cockroach-related medicines at the Institute of Materia Medica at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing.
“But its effect on certain symptoms is well established, and confirmed by molecular science and large-scale hospital applications.”
A pack containing two 3.4 ounce bottles of the potion costs around $8.
On the packaging and in the user instructions, only one ingredient is listed.
Periplaneta americana – the American cockroach.