Are figs suitable for vegans?

Posted on 24 September 2013

Carina Laubscher: How can I explain in simple terms to flesh eathers why figs are not vegan? Or am I being obsessive?

Please do comment; Carina would appreciate feedback from vegans on this issue!

“Most commercially grown figs are pollinated by wasps. And yes, edible figs wind up with at least one dead female wasp inside. But it’s still not quite the childhood myth of fruits squirming with insect meat. It’s all part of the mutually beneficial relationship that exists between fig wasp and fig plant.

A few points worth remembering about the wasp content:

1. When a female wasp dies inside an edible fig, an enzyme in the fig called ficin breaks down her carcass into protein. The fig basically digests the dead insect, making it a part of the resulting ripened fruit. The crunchy bits in figs are seeds, not anatomical parts of a wasp.

2. Fig farmers want to keep the number of wasps entering edible figs to an acceptable minimum. While the insect’s cooperation is mandatory for the fig to ripen, too many wasps entering will result in over-pollination. Then this fig might be filled with so many seeds that the fruit-like syconium bursts open. While this is good for the plant, it hurts the finished harvest for farmers. To prevent this, farmers separate male and female trees over great distances. Farmers also supply a controlled number of new wasps, often delivered in paper sacks, to dictate exactly how many females have access to a given plant. This means fewer wasps inside when the time comes to harvest.

3. It’s also important not to get too bent out of shape over the possibility of accidently eating the occasional insect. Even with the use of modern pest control, insects partially contaminate most agricultural products upon harvest and on the way to market. From canned corn to curry paste, from premium coffee to peanut butter, most foods contain insects. For example, when tomato ketchup qualifies for the highest USDA grade standard possible, it’s required to contain no more than 30 fruit fly eggs per every 100 grams (3.5 ounces) [source: North Carolina State University Department of Entomology].”

“For some people, no amount of explaining is likely to suffice. Some vegetarians and vegans refuse to eat figs and fig products based on the possibility of insect content. The dead wasps in question, however, were just playing their vital ecological role. There are 900 species of fig wasp, and each is responsible for pollinating one or two species of fig plant. Without these tiny insects, there would be no figs — and vice versa”

How then do these tiny wasps that only live for a few days manage to perform their amazing task of finding and pollinating flowers that are hidden inside the fig? Female fig wasps leaving the fig they have bred in need to fly off in search of another fig tree to continue the reproductive cycle, often a long and arduous journey, which only a few individuals out of thousands manage successfully. This remarkable feat is achieved by homing in on host tree-specific volatiles, a chemical signal released by the fig when it is receptive for pollination.

Completion of this journey is the first test of endurance, as once the pollinator has located a receptive fig, she needs to circumvent the next barrier. The only link the fig cavity has to the outside world is through a tiny bract-lined opening at the apex of the fig, called the ostiole, and it is by means of this passage that the pollinating fig wasp gains access to the florets. Negotiating the ostiole is no easy task, with the female wasp having to squeeze and labour her way between the tightly closed bracts. She is, however, remarkably adapted to do so. Her body, in particular her head and thorax, is extremely flattened and elongate. She also has rows upon rows of backward pointing teeth on her mandibular appendage, situated on the underside of her head, as well as a few strong teeth on her legs. These teeth assist her progress through the ostiole and also prevent her slipping backwards. Nevertheless, the process of gaining access to the fig cavity is so difficult that her wings and antennae usually break off in the ostiole, but this fortunately does not influence her pollinating or egg-laying ability.

The female wasp then proceeds to pollinate the stigmas and to lay eggs in the ovules of some of the florets. This she does by inserting her long ovipositor down the inside of the style. The florets that have styles longer than the wasp’s ovipositor are pollinated, but no eggs are laid in the ovule and hence these florets set seed.

The wasp larvae feed on the endosperm tissue in the galled ovary and larval development correlates strongly with host fig development, encompassing anything from three to twenty weeks. Once the wasps have reached maturity they chew their way out from the galls and emerge into the fig cavity within a short period of each other.

The wingless males mate with the females before chewing a hole through the fig wall to the exterior to allow the females to escape – the male’s only two functions in life, as he dies soon afterwards! The females either actively load up pollen from ripe anthers into special pollen pockets, or in some species passively become covered with pollen, before exiting the fig in search of young receptive figs to complete the cycle.

Sources:
veganaustin.orgOpens in a new window
www.figweb.orgOpens in a new window


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