Are Figs Vegan? Wasp Exploitation and Debate in the Vegan Community

Learn the facts about figs to settle this vegan debate.

Close-up of figs on wooden table
Jenish Pansuriya / 500px / Getty Images

It may seem obvious that figs are vegan—they are, by definition, a plant-based food. Like all fruit, figs require pollination, and certain figs depend on help from pollinator wasps in order to ripen. Both species depend on this mutually beneficial relationship in order to reproduce.

Some vegans look at this interconnectedness as a vegan-questionable practice. The figs you see in the supermarket, however, are most likely common figs, which self-pollinate and don’t require pollinator wasps.

Join us as we bite into the science of fig pollination, the ethical questions at hand, and ways you can ensure your next fig is cruelty-free.

Treehugger Tip

Keep your eyes peeled for figs labeled California Grown as nearly 100% of the figs grown in California self-pollinate and do not rely on pollinator wasps. You’re probably also safe to eat figs labeled Product of USA as almost all figs grown domestically come from California.

Why Most People Consider Figs Vegan

Technically speaking, figs meet the requirement for vegan food as they are not animal-based products. Some fig types do have a mutually beneficial relationship with pollinator wasps, but unlike other small animal agriculture, wasps aren’t functional to the overwhelming majority of commercial fig production in the United States.

Cultivars of fig trees don’t hive or transport the wasps in the same way that honey bees are. The wasps enter and then die inside of the figs because their lifecycle is integrated into the lifecycle of the figs.

Most vegans adhere to the belief that fig pollination by wasps happens in the wild, is unavoidable, and is consequently not a form of animal exploitation. They further cite that abstaining from eating figs won’t change the mutually beneficial relationship that includes the death of wasps.

Beyond the ethical arguments, the vast majority of figs sold in the United States aren’t varieties that require wasp pollination, so a non-vegan status is possible—wasps can errantly make their way into figs that don’t require pollination—but highly improbable.

Which Figs Are (Almost) Always Considered Vegan

There are four fig types categorized on their pollination behavior and floral biology:

  • Common figs are female, self-pollinating (parthenocarpic), and seedless figs that don’t require pollinator wasps to produce edible fruit. There are hundreds of varieties of female common figs, and the majority of U.S.-grown figs are varieties of common figs. Because they self-pollinate, common figs meet even the most stringent of vegan definitions.
  • Smyrna figs are also female, but unlike common figs, they require pollination from male caprifigs—carried there by pollinator wasps—in order to grow into edible fruit. Concerned vegans should aim to avoid eating varieties of smyrna figs.
  • San Pedro figs, too, are female and grow two crops per year; the second crop usually depends on wasp pollination to ripen the fruit. Strict vegans often abstain from eating these as well.
  • Male caprifigs contain the pollen needed to ripen female figs. There are several varieties of male caprifigs, but none of them bear edible fruit. It is inside these male, inedible figs that pollinator wasps lay their eggs and collect the pollen they will use to ripen edible female figs.

Additionally, farmers have historically induced ripening for some fig types without wasps by spraying plant hormones onto the outer skin of the unripened female fruit. These vegan-friendly cultivation methods often work for farmers growing figs in colder climates like the United Kingdom.

Did You Know?

Climate change threatens the mutualism between figs and wasps. Research from 2013 indicated that an increase of 3 degrees C or more across the equatorial tropics would decrease the already short lifespan (just one to two days) of fig wasps, wreaking havoc on both the wasps and the trees.

Why Not Everyone Thinks Figs Are Vegan

Some vegans believe that eating figs goes against the vegan ideals of not consuming animal products or participating in animal exploitation. That belief exists because of the complicated relationship between figs and pollinator wasps. 

Figs are unable to spread their pollen in the same way as many other fruits because they begin life as a syconium—a hollow ball housing the fig’s tiny flowers inside. In order to reproduce, figs rely on female pollinator wasps who enter the male caprifig through a tiny opening, the ostiole. The wasps lay eggs in the male figs’ internal flowers before exiting with male fig pollen on their backs. 

Inside the caprifig, the wasp eggs hatch, and the larvae mate with one another. The males hatched inside don’t have wings and spend their entire lives digging holes that allow the females to leave and find another flowering male fig in which to lay their eggs, beginning the cycle again. The male wasps then die inside of the male caprifigs. 

Wasp in a fig
Wasp half-submerged in a fig. Jenny Dettrick / Getty Images

Female wasps can die inside of both male figs and female figs. When a female wasp mistakenly enters a female fig, the ostiole is so small that it shears off the wasp’s antennae and wings, rendering her unable to escape. The pollen she carries on her back, however, fertilizes the female fig and turns it into edible fruit. 

Dead wasps in both male and female figs are then digested by ficain, a proteolytic enzyme, which absorbs the nutrients and dissolves the exoskeleton.

Biologists call such a relationship obligate mutualism—both species benefit and need the other to continue their lifecycles. Figs and wasps have co-evolved in this manner for around 75 million years, and their mutualism is responsible for the diversity of over 700 species of fig.

Some people, however, believe because wasps ultimately die in the fruit that figs technically don’t meet the vegan qualification of abstaining from consuming animal products of any kind. Because pollination is a necessary requirement for the perpetuation of both species, some vegans see this inextricable death as conflicting with veganism. 

Certain vegans also argue that even parthenocarpic types of figs can sometimes contain wasps. Wasps from nearby male fig trees can mistakenly enter them, ending their life in what would otherwise be a wasp-less fig.

Types of Vegan Figs

Figs
Black mission figs are generally safe for vegans to eat. bgwalker / Getty Images

Despite their integrated natural relationship with wasps in the wild, almost all figs sold in the United States are self-pollinating common figs and are highly unlikely to contain wasps. Common fig varieties sold in U.S. groceries stores include: 

  • Kadota
  • Black Mission
  • Conadria
  • White Adriatic
  • Brown Turkey

Types of Non-Vegan Figs

If you find yourself in your friend's hobby orchard or traveling outside of North America, you may encounter figs that have been pollinated by wasps. If you're a vegan who wants to adhere as strictly as possible without giving up figs entirely, you're best avoiding these types:

  • San Pedro
  • Smyrna
  • Calimyrna (A hybrid of California and Smyrna figs, these figs are one of the few grown in the U.S. that do require pollination.)
Frequently Asked Questions
  • Can vegans eat figs?

    Yes, most figs are vegan-friendly fruit. There is no part of the commercial fig industry that intentionally exploits or harms small animals. Also, most U.S.-grown figs are self-pollinating and can develop without the mutualism of pollinator wasps. The likelihood of consuming a wasp in a fig, albeit still a possibility, is quite low.

  • Do all figs have wasps in them?

    The overwhelming majority of figs sold in America are self-pollinating and only have a small chance of containing wasps. Still, some figs that have a mutual relationship with pollinator wasps almost certainly contained wasps at one point in their development. Likewise, self-pollinating figs that don’t require pollinator wasps can, through natural processes, accidentally contain wasps.

  • Why can't vegans eat figs?

    Some vegans see the mutual relationship between wasps and figs as animal exploitation and ultimately animal consumption. They, therefore, avoid figs entirely. Most vegans, however, consider figs to be vegan and consume them.

  • Do vegan figs taste different?

    Yes. Experts have noted that figs have a “nuttier” flavor if they have been pollinated by wasps versus another method of fruit ripening.

  • Are Fig Newtons vegan?

    Nabisco does not disclose the source of their figs in Fig Newtons. Operating on the assumption that their figs are vegan, the other ingredients in these cookies are also vegan-friendly.