Sustainability made simple

Why Figs Are Not (Always) Vegan

figs not vegan
Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - Tijana Drndarski

Even though they are a member of the fruit family, many people consider figs not vegan. We’ll explain the connection between figs and wasps, what makes most figs problematic and what alternatives there are.

At first glance, there isn’t even a question of whether figs are vegan or not. After all, they are the fruit of the fig tree, which makes them a plant-based food. What often gets overlooked is the fact that numerous wasps are harmed in the cultivation of this particular fruit. This is not just an unfortunate side effect – it’s a necessary requirement.

Why Are Figs Not Vegan?

Fig trees and fig wasps have long shared a symbiotic relationship, meaning they both benefit from one another and need each other to survive. The fig tree provides a home and nest for wasps, and the wasps help pollinate the fruit.

Most commercially available figs come from the common fig (Ficus carica). The common fig has only female flowers and therefore needs the male pollen of another fig species to reproduce. Only certain species of wasps, known as fig wasps, can pollinate them.

wasps and figs
Every species of fig plant has their own corresponding species of fig wasp. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - Jametlene Reskp )

In order to pollinate the plant, a female fig wasp enters an unripe male fig and lays her eggs. Fig flowers are very narrow and knock off the antennae and wings of the wasp in the process, so the females die after laying their eggs. Plant galls then form from the flowers in which the young wasps grow. But that’s only part of why some consider figs not vegan.

The male wasps are born without wings, so they chew a tunnel out of the fig to allow the female wasps to escape after mating. After fulfilling their role, the male fig wasps then die. The females can then escape and fly to other male and female flowers. In this way, they transport the necessary pollen and ensure the fertilization of fig trees. In the process, however, the females lose their lives – the cycle continues.

After they die, the dead fig wasps are decomposed inside the flower; an enzyme called ficin causes them to dissolve completely. The fruit harvested later, therefore, contains no residue of the wasps. Strictly speaking, however, it means figs are not vegan. The death of the wasps is the basic requirement for them to grow at. Whether or not you want to consider figs vegan is ultimately an individual decision.  

Do Vegan Figs Exist?

Certain fig varieties don’t require pollination to produce fruit, making them vegan. These fall under the term parthenocarpic figs. So if you enjoy eating them but want to make sure your figs are vegan, you have the option of planting a fig tree in your garden.

For more details, it is best to go to a garden center for advice. You can find out whether the climate in your region is favorable enough to grow figs — and also learn which self-pollinating species are suitable. Common North American species include Celeste and Brown Turkey. 

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