Are oysters vegan?

Are oysters vegan?

The simple, somewhat lazy answer is no – by definition, oysters aren’t vegan, as they’re taxonomically classed as animals. But wait a minute! Hold your seahorses! Before you close this tab in a fit of disgust at having had your time wasted, let’s look at this issue a bit further.

Man Eating Oysters, Louis Vergetas

Broadly speaking, there are three reasons people go vegan: ethics (for the animals), environment (for the planet), and health (for your body). If eating oysters and some other molluscs wouldn’t contradict any of these reasons, then to avoid them simply because they are technically animals would be to obey a kind of scaled-up speciesism. A kingdom-ism, if you like; treating plants and animals differently just because they are plants or animals, rather than asking what makes them different.

Here’s a little thought-experiment: imagine I’m in front of you, holding an aubergine in one hand, and a puppy in the other. With no warning, you are given a knife and told to stab one of these life-forms within 5 seconds, or they will both be destroyed. What are you going to do? No time to waste! Make your decision! Now!

You monster!

Okay, I’m going to go ahead and assume you stabbed the aubergine. If you opted for the puppy, please stop reading this article immediately, pick up a phone, and inform the police that you might be endangering the public.

The point of this experiment is not to demonstrate that aubergines are evil beings who deserve punishment (though that is, incidentally, true), nor is it to show that we prioritise cuteness over purpleness. If the puppy was replaced with a less traditionally cute animal like a fish, a lizard, or even a worm, you’d probably still rather slice up a vegetable than an animal, right?

The reason for this is quite obvious. Whilst some plants demonstrate the ability to ‘communicate’ via chemical interactions, and can even respond to stimuli, it would be the act of only the most desperate carnivore to try and argue that plants can truly feel, given their lack of a nervous system or a brain. Animals, on the other hand, are sentient beings who demonstrate quite without a doubt that they can feel pain both psychological and/or physical. As Gary Yourofsky has said,

“That Descartes’ Cartesian way of looking at animals, like they’re machines… It is outdated, and quite frankly, 100% insane. Because, if we all understand that animals use their eyes to see, ears to hear, noses to smell, mouths to eat, legs to walk, feathers to fly, fins to swim, genitalia to procreate, bowels to defecate.. I’m always perplexed that most people don’t believe that they can also use their brains to think, feel, be rational, be aware and be self-aware.”

But what about if an animal didn’t have a nervous system? Didn’t have a brain? Whilst such a being would biologically be considered an animal, from a moral perspective would it not be closer to plants? The philosopher Peter Singer, whose landmark work Animal Liberation kickstarted the modern day animal rights’ movement, has criticised the term ‘animal’ itself, which for most people lazily lumps together individuals “as different as oysters and chimpanzees”. Singer himself has jumped back and forth on the oyster issue over the decades, but in a 2009 Q&A he said “They don’t have a brain or central nervous system, so it is hard to imagine that they can feel pain. But if you have doubts about it, don’t eat them.” Of course, we don’t know for sure, but if could describe our certainty that plants don’t feel pain as around 99.9%, that number for oysters might be 97%. So, pretty sure.

Of course, “pretty sure” isn’t the most convincing argument for wolfing down a bucketload of oysters. But, as the planet’s population keeps rising, oysters could prove to be an incredibly efficient source of food around the world. Most animal agriculture is staggeringly inefficient; a cow takes as much as 20kg of feed to produce just 1kg of meat. Oysters, however, given that they feed on plankton and algae, actually produce protein we can eat from a source we can’t; a source which, if we do things right, is in little danger of ever running out.

FALSE: Oyster don’t give to charity because they’re insentient beings incapable of understanding the concept of money.

Most animal husbandry also uses up water in gargantuan amounts; 200 litres of water produce just one glass of milk, and 2,400 litres go into a single hamburger. Oysters require no water except that in which they live. In fact, unbelievably, they actually filter dirty water, making it safe for humans and reducing the cost of sewage filtration by a factor of 100. Given how many of those starving around the world also don’t have access to clean water, oyster farming could provide an unexpected solution to many millions of people in need.

Oysters’ nutritional benefits also makes them the perfect candidate for fighting world hunger, as they contain 16g of protein per serving and high levels of vitamin C. They’re also high in zinc, selenium, and iron, all of which are a little bit harder to find on a plant-based diet. And finally, being biologically animals, oysters are of course rich in vitamin B-12, and finally getting people to shut up about that vitamin might be the cherry on the icing of eating oysters as a vegan.

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An oyster farm in Pyeongsa, South Korea, looking a great deal more beautiful than a battery hen farm.

Of course, none of this is an argument for eating oysters – if you’re not sure and don’t want to risk causing harm, then you don’t have to. But they could provide a radical and invaluable solution to problems of hunger and starvation around the world. Given the public’s growing recognition of the unsustainable conditions of modern day animal agriculture, many people hold the view that the future of the human race is veganism. Perhaps, but maybe, just maybe, it might just be ostroveganism. But then again, maybe not – oysters have recently been shown to be a natural aphrodisiac, so putting them forward as a solution for a high-population future planet Earth might not be so wise after all…



  1. True they don’t have a central nervous system like ours but they do have sensory nerve cells very similar to those that sense pain in humans so there is good reason to believe that they may feel pain.

  2. Thank you Edward for making this argument. I am not from a high oyster-eating area, so it is one I have not thought of these creatures or this argument before. I think you (plus more research) have convinced me. Though, I would hope to look for the most locally sourced mussles as possible. Thank you for continuing this conversation! Who knows, maybe I’ll even start a farm myself.

    I believe their sensory nerve cells simply respond to stimuli (which results in closing their shell), similar to that of a plant like a venus fly trap. Does that plant feel pain? No. And the bivalve doesn’t either. Feeling pain is a high energertic cost that doesn’t make sense to have in an animal that is sessile.

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