Are Figs Vegan?

March 20, 2020

Honey exploits bees, but figs exploit wasps. So, are figs vegan after all?

Most people consider plants and plant-based foods “vegan” without a second thought—vegetables, nuts, grains, and fruits all top this list.

But because veganism shuns animal products, exploitation, and cruelty, the rules of veganism might not be so obvious. Honey, for example, is entirely plant-based. It’s made from pollen. However, most vegans are dead set against it since animals (honeybees) are put to work for us to create it, sometimes in harsh conditions.

Still, some innocent-seeming foods are less blatantly non-vegan— like figs, which lie at the heart of one of the latest vegan controversies.

Today, figs are still recommended in vegan diets and protocols, like Dr. Sebi’s Nutritional Guide. Since they require very specific wasps to pollinate and to bear fruit, however, there’s a lot that vegans should know about figs— and it could mean that figs are not as vegan as they seem.

How are figs pollinated?

There are hundreds of fig species, both wild and cultivated. Each one needs a unique species of wasp (called a fig wasp) to reproduce and grow the fruits we eat.

The craziest thing you’ll hear today: figs are actually flowers! To pollinate these blossoms into the plump, succulent “fruits” (which are actually “internal flowers”) that we so enjoy, female wasps must burrow deep inside of them first. But, what’s in it for the female wasp? What’s the payoff?

It’s the same for her as the fig tree: reproduction. Once inside, the fig wasp lays her eggs. Shortly after, her journey to motherhood—and her life— ends, the fig’s floral juices trapping her body. She can’t tunnel back to the outside world, and she dies.

But life begins again. Her eggs hatch and larvae develop as the fig flower “ripens.” Once mature, male wasps fertilize the females, chewing tunnels out of the flower. Sometime after, pregnant females free themselves and fly to other figs, repeating the fig wasp life cycle all over again.

In the meantime, female fig wasps transport the pollen from their “home fig” to a completely new fig flower, pollinating it to bear seed. This process is what gives us both new fig fruits and fig trees in the first place.

No wasps, no figs

It sounds like wasps are put to work to bring us delicious figs, right? Just like honey and honeybees, fig wasps go the distance so we can enjoy these tropical treats. They also die in the process.

If honey isn’t vegan, many could say figs aren’t vegan, either. And while this can be based simply on “no wasps, no figs,” you could also say that figs can’t be eaten without eating a wasp, too.

That’s right: when female wasps die, their trapped bodies get eaten…yes, by you, almost every time you eat a fig. Most dried figs you’ll eat contain the tiny preserved bodies of female wasps, meaning you’re consuming an animal, too.

Fortunately for vegans, many fresh figs these days come from self-pollinating cultivars (Ficus carica) that don’t need wasps to grow fruits. Nevertheless, most dried figs— especially non-fresh cultivars, like Smyrna figs— come from varieties that still need fig wasps, possibly making them non-vegan fruits after all.

Are Figs Vegan?

The exploitation of a beautiful relationship?

To some vegans, this wasp-fruit tree relationship isn’t a moral dilemma at all. From a natural standpoint, most biologists agree: figs and fig wasps “co-evolved” together in a close symbiotic relationship that benefits them both, and they wouldn’t exist without each other.

Fig trees don’t just kill wasps in order to reproduce (though it might seem that way). The truth is, no other pollinator can do for fig trees what fig wasps do. Fig trees need wasps to spread their pollen to other trees.

And fig wasps need figs, too. Yes, wasps die after they procreate. But they can’t reproduce with the help of any other plant, or they wouldn’t exist, either. Long story short, figs and fig wasps depend on each other (and it’s actually kind of beautiful).

That said, is it really so cruel to enjoy the natural fruits of their labor (especially if you don’t mind munching an occasional wasp)? For some vegans, it might all depend on how “natural” the fig-wasp relationship really is. And if this is the natural life cycle of the wasp (and it doesn’t harm or inflict cruelty on them in any way), then maybe that’s something you can live with.

However, vegans should know that some commercially grown figs do indeed exploit this relationship— and in ways that seem unnatural and cruel.

A beautiful wasp and fig relationship, but

As stated earlier, most fresh figs on the market don’t need wasps to be grown. But many dried figs still do— including the Smyrna variety, which gives us one of the most popular commercial dried figs you can buy.

To boost production and keep up with demand, Smyrna figs must be pollinated more often and reliably than natural. Their big fruits just don’t produce in high numbers or ripen overnight, even with help from the wild fig wasps that have evolved with them.

So, fig growers use other fig wasps to grow figs by tricking them— a process called caprification. Male fig flowers from different fig orchards, full of fertilized female wasps, are hung in Smyrna fig branches. The females emerge and beeline to the Smyrna figs immediately nearby, unable to tell they’re not the right ones (male fig flowers) because they smell the same. In some cases, growers may use chemicals to lure them.

Once they burrow inside to lay eggs, it’s too late. The inner flowers are female and have the wrong shape to make this possible. Instead of naturally ending her life-giving birth in peace, the mother fig wasp dies in severe stress and exhaustion, unable to satisfy her instinctual drive.

She does successfully pollinate the flower, however. Still, she cannot lay eggs, she cannot escape, and she dies cruelly.

So, are figs a vegan food?

Figs being vegan are still at the center of much debate. On the one hand, you can enjoy fresh figs from self-pollinating trees with peace of mind, knowing no wasps died in the process. This would undoubtedly make these specific figs 100% vegan, with little argument.

Still, vegan consumers should be aware of (and know how to identify) store-bought figs that require fig wasps to be grown. Vegans should especially understand that the natural fig tree-wasp relationship can be cruelly manipulated to grow certain kinds of commercial figs— especially dried Smyrna figs.

Like anything, however, figs ultimately being vegan or not may come down to one’s personal opinion in light of the facts, whether you’re vegan or not.

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