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Hey Vegans! Consider the Oyster

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?

Read more: Animal Rights, Conscious Consumer, Following Food, Food, Nature & Wildlife, , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

245 comments

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11:36AM PST on Feb 7, 2013

hey eric! no thanks.

8:24AM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

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?

1:27PM PDT on May 29, 2012

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.

4:29AM PDT on Apr 1, 2012

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.

1:11PM PDT on Mar 31, 2012

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.

10:09AM PDT on Mar 31, 2012

A noise annoys an oyster. :-)

6:52AM PDT on Mar 29, 2012

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

8:51PM PDT on Mar 27, 2012

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!

7:54PM PDT on Mar 27, 2012

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?

11:58AM PDT on Mar 27, 2012

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.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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