Oysters: Vegan Food or Not?

Do Oysters Qualify as Vegan Food?

Right up there with honey, oysters divide the vegan community on whether or not they can pass as vegan food.

People unfamiliar with vegan food often ask vegans some frustrating and occasionally condescending questions, as if we’re trying to breathe underwater or talk to Brad Pitt without drooling. Questions like: do we have enough to eat, how do we get enough protein, and, of course, how in the world do we manage to live a single second without wanting to freebase cheese and bacon.

Now, flip the script and imagine the awkwardness (and possibly even violence) that would ensue if a vegan asked a non-vegan if they were planning to finish the massive pile of dead, tortured and potentially poisoned carcass on their plate, why they don’t seem worried about the detriment to their health and the planet that comes from consuming too much animal protein, and why they aren’t suspicious about their compulsive addiction to cheese and bacon.

But most vegans don’t bother asking those questions. We know the conversation will likely get ugly and defensive, even if we’re doing nothing more than sitting there eating a lentil burger. Instead, most of us prefer to wow non-vegans with delicious and satisfying meatless meals rather than debate the sentience of all animals, right down to oysters.

According to their place in the Animal Kingdom, oysters are bivalve molluscs, which means they are most technically, not plants. Not even fungus, like mushrooms. The case for vegetarians or vegans who say it’s okay to eat oysters comes down to one critical distinguishing factor: they don’t have central nervous systems (the oysters, not the vegetarians). At least, not nervous systems recognizable by science as capable of transmitting and receiving pain signals. So, does that mean they’re incapable of feeling pain? After all, feeling pain is the core argument for veganism—to spare animals unnecessary suffering. Step gently on your dog or cat’s tail for a sec. I’ll wait. Now multiply that yelp times A LOT of animals and a lot worse pain and you’re a bit closer to understanding the reality of the livestock industry and the reason the vegan diet is becoming such a popular choice.

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) makes the argument against eating oysters by observing that while the animals may not have nervous systems similar to other animals, “Oysters protect their soft bodies by snapping their shells tightly closed at the first hint of danger.”

Of course, plants have defense response systems as well—producing toxins, scents and other methods of deterring predators (as well as employing similar methods to attract food and pollinators). But that doesn’t sway vegans from eating plants. And since there are plenty of vegan plant foods to eat that provide all the nutrients one needs to live, why even have this conversation about oysters in the first place?

Well, it turns out oysters, like some insects, are being touted as environmentally-friendly animal protein foods of the now/future. And this means you may be seeing a lot more of them on menus. Slate reports:

Oyster farms account for 95 percent of all oyster consumption and have a minimal negative impact on their ecosystems; there are even nonprofit projects devoted to cultivating oysters as a way to improve water quality. Since so many oysters are farmed, there’s little danger of overfishing. No forests are cleared for oysters, no fertilizer is needed, and no grain goes to waste to feed them—they have a diet of plankton, which is about as close to the bottom of the food chain as you can get. Oyster cultivation also avoids many of the negative side effects of plant agriculture: There are no bees needed to pollinate oysters, no pesticides required to kill off other insects, and for the most part, oyster farms operate without the collateral damage of accidentally killing other animals during harvesting. (Relatedly, although it’s possible to collect wild oysters sustainably, the same cannot be said for other bivalves like clams and mussels. These are often dredged from the seabed, disrupting an entire ecosystem. For that reason, it’s best to avoid them.)

Considering what’s happening in our oceans–overfishing, acidification and pollution–improving water quality by increasing oyster populations sounds like it could be a healthy step to a healthier planet. But we know how fine the line is between a good thing and a totally out-of-balance overstepping of the line. If we go “full oyster” there’s no telling what effect that might have. Just look at what our cheese and bacon obsession did–it turned small-scale family farmers who treated their animals more like pets into Guantanamo-style factories churning out tortured, overstuffed animals bred to grow so big so fast that even if they’re spared the slaughter line, they’re not going to live a care-free life animals 50 years ago would have enjoyed.

As most vegans know, having a discussion about decreasing meat consumption with a rapacious meat-eater can be not only frustrating, but dangerous. It can ruin friendships, strain family relations and make a work environment uncomfortable. And while vegans can still hope for a world where vegan food is as common as chicken wings, it’s important to recognize the steps and stages necessary in reinventing our food system. In other words, people are still going to eat meat, oysters or otherwise. But maybe oysters are a little bit better for the bacon freebaser.

As for qualifying as vegan food, oysters—nervous systems or not—still aren’t plants. And with so many delicious plants to choose from, there’s no reason to look to oysters as a vegan food. While they may be less damaging on the environment than, say, a hamburger, they’re not as good for your body or the soil as a lentil. In that respect, oysters may present a more ethical, environmentally friendly and even healthier choice for meat eaters ready to step-down their consumption of the most common livestock animals (pigs, cows and chickens), but there are still healthier foods for us and the planet that—without question—are totally delicious and totally guilt-free.

P.S. Oyster mushrooms are vegan, environmentally friendly and freaking scrumptious.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Oyster image via Shutterstock