Last summer I visited a friend in San Francisco whom I hadn’t seen in a while. Normally in such cases, I must gently remind my host that I eat neither meat, nor dairy, nor eggs, but my friend beat me to it: “I recall that you are a vegan,” he wrote, “though one that appreciates fine oysters.” Finally, someone who understands me. The trip went off without a hitch—I tore into some fantastic Point Reyes bivalves to go with my green salad, and friendship and comity were reaffirmed.
Because I eat oysters, I shouldn’t call myself a vegan. I’m not even a vegetarian. I am a pescetarian, or a flexitarian, or maybe there’s an even more awkward word to describe my diet. At first I despaired over losing the vegan badge of honor—I do everything else vegans do—but I got over it. Oysters may be animals, but even the strictest ethicist should feel comfortable eating them by the boatload.
There are dozens of reasons to become a vegan, but just two should suffice: Raising animals for food 1) destroys the planet and 2) causes those animals to suffer. But what if we could find an animal that thrived in a factory-farm cage, one that subsisted on nutrients plucked from the air and that was insensate to the slaughterhouse blade? Even if that animal looked like a bunny rabbit crossed with a puppy, it would be A-OK to hack it into pieces for your dinner plate. Luckily for those of us who still haven’t gotten over the death of Bambi’s mother, the creature I’m thinking of is decidedly less cuddly. Biologically, oysters are not in the plant kingdom, but when it comes to ethical eating, they are almost indistinguishable from plants. 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.)
Moreover, since oysters don’t have central nervous systems, they’re unlikely to experience pain in a way resembling ours—unlike a pig or a herring or even a lobster. They can’t move, so they don’t respond to injury like those animals do, either. Even monkish ethicist Peter Singer sanctioned oyster eating in Animal Liberation—the best-argued case for a vegan diet I’ve read—before reversing his opinion for later editions of the book. To justify the flip-flop, he wrote that “one cannot with any confidence say that these creatures do feel pain, so one can equally have little confidence in saying that they do not feel pain.” This is unconvincing: We also can’t state with complete confidence that plants do, or do not, feel pain—yet so far Singer hasn’t made a stand against alfalfa abuse.
The main argument of Animal Liberation is that discriminating against nonhuman animals is indefensible because it makes irrelevant category distinctions—pain cuts across species barriers. But to loop oysters into a dietary taboo simply because we’ve labeled them animals is to make just such a faulty distinction. Likewise, we shouldn’t be eating more plants because they are in the plant kingdom; we should eat them because it’s a sound way to feed ourselves without causing a lot of damage to the world. And oysters, as far as we can tell, belong with plants in almost every ethically relevant way.