Hey Vegans! Consider the Oyster

It’s okay to eat fish; ‘Cause they don’t have any feelings –Nirvana

Back in the early 1990s, when rock band Nirvana was at the threshold stage of their colossal but short career, this particular sentiment on the closing song of their hit album “Nevermind” had a certain resonance with the ethical grunge set. I recall, it was often intoned and repeated by fans and those who had a hunger for fish tacos but didn’t want to take the ethical hit of eating an animal with actual feelings. The factual basis of this claim, that fish are devoid of feelings, is shoddy science/research at best, but was faithfully perpetuated by hungry grunge acolytes looking to latch onto some sort of lazy epicurean philosophy.

I was reminded of this refrain when I stumbled upon Christopher Cox’s ethical musing on whether or not it was acceptable to eat oysters, particularly for vegans. I know what you are thinking, isn’t the dictionary definition of vegan being someone who refrains from consuming any animal product? Well, by definition yes, but Cox breaks down his personal vegan rationale to two distinct points: “Raising animals for food 1) destroys the planet and 2) causes those animals to suffer.”

While this may not exactly define every vegan’s (or vegetarian‘s) raison d’etre, it does seem to provide a cursory perspective for a somewhat stringent lifestyle. So as these rules apply, the humble oyster gets a pass, and is therefore afforded a place on the vegan dinner table next to the marinated tempeh and grilled zucchini.

Oysters, unlike other factory-farmed animals like cows and pigs, actually thrive in the factory farm (or in this case aqua farm) setting. Oyster farms account for about 95 percent of all oyster production and have minimal environmental impact on the surrounding ecology. No forests are cleared for oysters, no fertilizer is needed, and no grain goes to waste to feed them–they have a diet of simple plankton. Actually, oyster farms are often utilized to clean up polluted waterways, as the oyster is essentially a natural-born filter well suited to the job of cleaning contaminated rivers and bays. Fundamentally, oysters and oyster farming are actually, to some extent, beneficial for the planet.

With this information, we can feel somewhat OK about our reasonably low carbon footprint when it comes to eating oysters, but this is only half the equation, as it doesn’t really address the pain and suffering component of eating a live animal. For anyone that has ever consumed a fresh oyster, the ritual resembles a sort of brutality that is comparatively rare in world of modern eating. First the live oyster is penetrated and bisected with a knife, then it is most often incapacitated and stunned by a spray of lemon juice and then quickly consumed by being slurped down the throat of the consumer in waiting. However, according to Cox, oysters don’t have a central nervous system, which makes them seemingly unable to experience pain in that humans or livestock do. Cox asserts, “Biologically, oysters are not in the plant kingdom, but when it comes to ethical eating, they are almost indistinguishable from plants.”

With this justification, are we to assume that the oyster should stand as the exception to the rule, as is evidenced by their apparent lack of typical animal traits (no face, no pain, no guilt)? Is this justification enough to forgo the rules of veganism/vegetarianism and take a life? Should eating ethically be a purity pissing contest, or should these dietary definitions be more malleable to embrace exceptions like the oyster?

245 comments

aj E.
aj E.3 years ago

hey eric! no thanks.

Dale Overall

Food to me is a delight and I will try almost anything once. However I will avoid oysters as shell fish for some reason does not like me...am allergic. Sigh! So will have to substitute other tasties such as pickerel instead or quinoa and pretend it is a greyish blob...maybe blobs of oatmeal?

Veronica N.
Veronica N.3 years ago

Ethically, the oyster really isn't sentient...there's no central nervous system, etc. As an ethical vegan, eating them really isn't a problem from that angle. The way they are collected may be an issue, though, since our oceans are constantly being damaged by the quest for seafood.

From a plain ol' icky standpoint, they are nature's water filter and with the gulf oil spill (the oil didn't just disappear, and they did not recover most of it) I wouldn't eat anything that came out of that mess, plant or oyster.

colleen p.
colleen p.4 years ago

it comes back to painism.

and the nature and science of pain

pain is to avoid body damage, you flinch and run away from "owies", so you don't do something dumb like bathe in fire. althouh some people are born with a disorder where they are indiffernt to pain. They could bite their tounge off, or, take touch fire and cook their hand.

so, even though these are our fellow humans, some would think this means it is ok to abuse or eat them, because they don't feel it.

there is pain, and awareness of it. Insects would feel the hurt, would they dwell on it, or react like a reflex? like when the doctor hits your knee?

perhaps then, what the "yay, kill and eat" people need, are animals that are masochistic. not feeling pain would result in body damage.

Sharon Balloch
Sharon Balloch4 years ago

No thanks...Oysters are subject to various diseases which disease control focuses on containing infections and breeding resistant strains and is the subject of much ongoing research.
Not sure I want to trust anyone to keep the disease infected oysters off my plate.. and I am a vegan and vegans do not eat living animals.. even slimy ones.

Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W.4 years ago

A noise annoys an oyster. :-)

Janet W.
Janet W.4 years ago

This whole article and the comments following it are a blatant waste of space.

Past Member
Past Member 4 years ago

I wouldn't call it vegan, but I'd definitely say this makes me feel better about eating oysters (which are packed with zinc, so a great stop-gap when you're catching a cold). Sounds like a very low to no guilt prospect!

Alexandra C.
alexandra c.4 years ago

Umm, NO! won't consider...why would i want to eat an oyster when i can have an oyster mushroom?..Why would anyone want to eat a slimy creature that sits at the bottom of the sea absorbing all the toxins? there's enough plant life to eat without farming oysters..so why try to convince us that oysters are like plants?

Casey Loufek
Casey Loufek4 years ago

Yes, we get that oysters are not "vegan" by the original definition. The point is that if rationality and logical consistency have anything to do with this than oysters are no less moral to consume than plants.

The resistance and proselytizing instead of rational analysis shows that veganism is more about dogma than logic or morality. Animal is a broad arbitrary category we made up and making blanket assumptions about the biology of all species in that group is absurd.