20 Dec

To me, this is what a fig looks like in its natural state:

I don’t really eat them any other way. And I don’t think about them much. In fact, never. Not even when I’m buying the vegan (dairy-free) Fig Newmans. And eating the whole tray in a day. Two if I’m lucky.

But yesterday I saw a tweet from my favorite 3,000-mile-away food truck, The Cinnamon Snail, that made me go: Huh?  Seems that TCS had gotten into a twitter exchange with someone who was inquiring about their use of figs in their pancakes, and whether or not figs were vegan. In the thirty years that I have been vegan (okay, 15 months) I have never seen anything calling into question the veganticity of a fig. So I clicked my way into the heart of their exchange and found this link the challenger had thrown down:


And there, spread across four pages, fifty-nine posts, and three years, you will find a discussion of whether or not figs are vegan. I won’t get into the whole thing because you can read it for yourself, but the basics go something like this: Figs are pollinated by wasps that climb into one end of the fig, deposit their children, sperm and luggage there, then die and leave their corpses to be devoured by fig-eating humans and other animals.

So basically, the argument goes, if you eat a fig, you’ve got dead wasps, wasp parts, or wasp secretions entering your up-until-now vegan body.

Well, here’s what I think. The problem with eating dead animals is that they are raised to be killed to be food for us. Or if hunted or caught wild, they at least are killed to be food for us. These insects are apparently dead inside the figs already. And if I’m following the story right, only some figs are even pollinated this way. So sometimes when you eat a fig, depending on the type, you may be getting dosed with bug parts. Is it icky? Sure. But where’s the problem?

Is it in the exploitation of the wasps? The (natural) death of the wasps in the (natural) production of a food item? Or is it the ingestion of the wasps or wasp parts or wasp jizz? (Remember those Budweiser commercials? Waspjizzzz!)

When bees make honey from the nectar of flowers, they do so to create a storable source of food for themselves. Beekeepers get them to overproduce honey so they can take some for the species Beekeeperus. (Okay, I might have misquoted Wikipedia here, but I can only stay on the page for so long without being overcome by guilt from those fundraising pleas.)

So with bees and honey, I can understand the exploitation. They get the bees to do extra work to make food for humans. Does this affect the bees? Are they aware of it? Do they mind? Does it lead to injuries and deaths and pain? I don’t eat honey for this and other reasons, but I don’t have a problem with people who eat honey and still call themselves vegan. (Isn’t that nice of me? Me who ate meat for almost half a hundred years.)

But this fig thing seems different. Humans aren’t making this happen. The wasps would do it in the absence of humans. It doesn’t even seem to be live wasps that are getting eaten. But I guess the idea here is that it’s wrong to eat something that once was alive. On principle, I suppose. Because what’s the difference between eating a dead wasp in a fig or eating a deer that was hit by a car and left dead on the side of the road. I wouldn’t eat that deer even if it were safe for me to consume because, well, I don’t eat animals. So does that apply here? Or is a wasp not an animal?

It’s at this point, when we’re out on what feels to me like the fringes having these kinds of discussions, that this might as well be a religion. But I suppose there are discussions at the edges in all kinds of secular areas, be they science or philosophy.

But isn’t it worse to think that The Cinnamon Snail Truck, as it heads home from dinner each night in the dark, is plowing into thousands of little flying things as it makes its way down the Garden State Parkway? Things that weren’t dead until they got hit by a truck. Or is the problem not the killing but the eating, even if the death of the thing being eaten wasn’t caused by humans at all? While it may not be clear to me whether a wasp is capable of feeling pain, I feel pretty certain that a dead wasp is not. So it’s not about the pain, which is the primary reason for my veganing in the first place. Sure I think that animals, even insects, have just as much right to exist as I do, but do I feel bad about the tiny things I may be hitting with my Honda or stepping on with my Soft Stags? A little bit, but I shrug it off pretty easily.

I hope this doesn’t make TCS change its ways or even feel bad for a second. What they and other providers of incredibly good-tasting vegan food are doing is showing that vegan food doesn’t have to be the feces-laden sawdust that so many meat-eaters imagine it to be. They show that an alternative exists that isn’t devoid of taste. That is in fact delicious. They are showing the way. And that’s a start. A very important start.

12 Responses to “Unfigedible”

  1. Kristen Maier December 20, 2011 at 6:13 am #

    After reading your post, I’d still eat figs. But I will also knit with wool, and many vegan knitters will not. Everyone needs to find their own line of comfort. Thanks for posting this issue. I hadn’t known figs were up for vegan debate.

    • insufferablevegan December 22, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

      Yes, it surprised me when I stumbled across this. Made me wonder what other things like this are out there!

  2. Midge December 20, 2011 at 1:50 pm #

    Thanks for this post. I honestly had no idea! I mentioned in my response to an earlier post that doing the most good and the least harm is what counts. I think that definitely applies here.

    • insufferablevegan December 22, 2011 at 1:57 pm #

      Midge, I like your philosophy. I turned a blind eye to the harm for a long time. If only everyone got to the point that they could say, “Eliminating figs is a step too far for me.”

  3. sam sutra February 28, 2012 at 8:53 pm #

    Didn’t know this!

  4. Harrald September 20, 2012 at 3:31 pm #

    It might also help for you to know that you are not actually crunching into the insects. The fig naturally digests the insects and uses the nutrients for itself! Pretty neat still.

  5. A Taste of Wintergreen February 22, 2013 at 8:10 am #

    Great post and an interesting blog!

  6. Pam March 9, 2013 at 6:28 pm #

    Farmers do grow the figs that are infected with the wasp, harvest them, bag them, then sell them to the farmers that grow edible figs for pollination.

  7. Dear Vegan - Advice to the Meatlorn April 28, 2013 at 8:17 am #

    You’ve educated and inspired me. Thanks!


  8. Dipak January 27, 2017 at 6:27 am #

    I’ve been researching this for a little while and still can’t quite decide where I stand on it.

    For me the central ethical point is whether the wasps have arrived at the fig trees of their own free will and volition or if the fig farmer has acquired wasps for the purpose of pollination, as that would constitute animal exploitation in my mind. This site suggests they do – http://animals.howstuffworks.com/insects/fig-wasp2.htm

    But I don’t know how widespread this practice may be as I also read that most commercially grown figs are self-pollinating and won’t contain any wasps at all.

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