Are Oysters (and other bivalves) Vegan?
The simple answer to this question is no. Based on the definition of vegan, being a diet/lifestyle which excludes animal products, oysters are of course not vegan. However, there is a diet called ostroveganism which is the standard vegan diet but it includes bivalves. Bivalves are unique compared to other animal foods because they appear to not have the ability to feel pain. They have very basic nervous systems that do not show the same responses to “painful” stimuli that other invertebrates do such as increased neurotransmitter activity or changes in physical behavior.
However, a 2011 study on molluscs (phylum which includes bivalves among other animal classes) analyzed their ability for nociception. Nociception is the sensory nervous system response to dangerous stimuli. An example of this is when we put our hand on a hot stove and instinctively pull away, regardless of whether pain was felt before pulling away. Most molluscs show this behavior as well but it is unclear though whether bivalves actually experience pain.
Knowing this, could vegans potentially consume bivalves ethically? It really depends on your reasoning for eating vegan. If a vegan is concerned about reducing animal suffering, consumption of bivalves could potentially fit within their values due to the lack of evidence for bivalve sentience (ability to feel). If a vegan is concerned about environmental implications, this article discusses the minimal environmental impacts associated with oyster farming. Economic and social implications should also be considered though.
But what if oysters and other bivalves DO actually feel pain and we cause them unnecessary suffering by consuming them? Retired CU professor Marc Bekoff believes that we should err on the safe side and avoid consuming oysters if we are concerned about animal suffering. He argues that there is no way for us to scientifically know if oysters feel pain and thus we should not consume them. He also cites how society used to also believe that fish do not experience pain, but we now know that this is not the case.
Many vegans (but also many people in general) lack sufficient vitamin B12 in their diets. Oysters could help alleviate this issue as well as supply more iron and long chain omega-3 fatty acids. This could be a potential nutrient solution for vegans who do not want to take supplements but still want to receive these nutrients.
Additionally, I think that considering oysters and other bivalves in a vegan diet could make the vegan lifestyle seem more reasonable. I think that offering bivalves as an option makes the vegans seem less strict and more accessible to non-vegans, which could lead to more people trying the diet out. (see my first blog for more on this topic)
I personally will not include oysters in my diet because I am not a huge fan of their taste and I agree with professor emeritus Marc Bekoff’s position of erring on the safe side. However, I believe that bivalves are a legitimate option for vegans who are concerned about their B12 and I would support anyone on an ostrovegan diet.