It's okay to eat fish; 'Cause they don't have any feelings - Nirvana
Back in the early 1990s, when rock band Nirvana was at the threshold stage of their colossal but short career, this particular sentiment on the closing song of their hit album "Nevermind" had a certain resonance with the ethical grunge set. I recall, it was often intoned and repeated by fans and those who had a hunger for fish tacos but didn't want to take the ethical hit of eating an animal with actual feelings. The factual basis of this claim, that fish are devoid of feelings, is shoddy science/research at best, but was faithfully perpetuated by hungry grunge acolytes looking to latch onto some sort of lazy epicurean philosophy.
I was reminded of this refrain when I stumbled upon Christopher Cox's ethical musing on whether or not it was acceptable to eat oysters, particularly for vegans. I know what you are thinking, isn't the dictionary definition of vegan being someone who refrains from consuming any animal product? Well, by definition yes, but Cox breaks down his personal vegan rationale to two distinct points: "Raising animals for food 1) destroys the planet and 2) causes those animals to suffer."
While this may not exactly define every vegan's (or vegetarian's) raison d'etre, it does seem to provide a cursory perspective for a somewhat stringent lifestyle. So as these rules apply, the humble oyster gets a pass, and is therefore afforded a place on the vegan dinner table next to the marinated tempeh and grilled zucchini.
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?
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.
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