The Ethics of Eating Bivalves?

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The Ethics of Eating Bivalves?

Postby jacket » Tue May 11, 2010 8:32 am

This is an issue I've been wondering about since reading something about in passing in The Ethics of What We Eat, by Peter Singer. He basically said in passing that oysters (technically bivalves, which include scallops/clams/oysters/mussels) were really in essence no different from plants and so some “vegans” (technically they weren’t vegans, I suppose), including himself, didn't have a problem with eating them. Because I’ve always found his arguments logically thought out and well researched, and I respect Singer as a philosopher, I thought this idea deserved further thought.

Personally, even before I was vegan I could never stomach that type of food (the consistently of an oyster - eugh!) so it's not something I'll be taking up any time soon, but I am very interested in the ethics of it. A snippet of what Singer had to say on the topic:

"I've gone back and forth on this over the years," he said. "Perhaps there is a scintilla more doubt about whether oysters can feel pain than there is about plants, but I'd see it as extremely improbable. So while you could give them the benefit of the doubt, you could also say that unless some new evidence of a capacity for pain emerges, the doubt is so slight that there is no good reason for avoiding eating sustainably produced oysters." - Peter Singer

Two articles/resources on the subject:
http://www.slate.com/id/2248998/ - "Consider the Oyster"

http://letthemeatmeat.com/post/506197250/did-oysters-just-kill-veganism - "Did Oysters Just Kill Veganism"
I don't think I agree with a lot of the content of this article, which seems to take a very negative view of veganism (which I see as a positive thing!). However it also examines some comments by vegans that were responses to the above article, and this I found illuminating because it covered a lot of the arguments I came up with against eating oysters. One quote from a commenter I found particularly pertinent:

"I have to have a legitimate reason for everything I exclude from my diet ... I would be cheating my standards if I left oysters off the menu just because I’m supposed to, and not because I think it’s a good idea." - brosephstalin33

I definitely agree it’s somewhat silly to say "I won't eat oysters because then I wouldn't be vegan", (which seems to be the argument of many commenter’s), because personally I base the choices I make on what I feel is ethically correct, not on what I want people to define me as. Of course this argument only applies if that’s the only issue with eating oysters – which I am not 100% convinced about yet.

Some others argued that eating oysters was “exploiting” them, which is against a vegan lifestyle, but I don’t see why with this argument isn’t then applied to plants – we’re exploiting them for their products to, and if I don’t have a problem with ‘exploiting’ plants, and oysters are essentially plants (for the intents and purpose of this argument) well then I wouldn’t have a problem with “exploiting” them either.

Anyway I've seen some other discussions on this topic get pretty heated, and I want to stress that I'm not trying to make a real argument for it either way (at least not yet) - it's just an issue that really interests me and I would love to hear some other vegan opinions! Not trying to start a fight, just hopefully a discussion! :)

Oh, also, one last thing, if anyone knows of any articles or studies or whatnot (preferably scientific/scholarly ones!) about studies on bivalves in regards to these issues, I would love to know about them!
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Re: The Ethics of Eating Bivalves?

Postby baldy » Tue May 11, 2010 8:38 am

I am allergic to shellfish so its pretty academic for me really.

From an environmental aspect shellfish, has the same issues as any seafood?
What is the nutritional value of them anyway, I always just thought of them as luxury novelty kind of food.
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Re: The Ethics of Eating Bivalves?

Postby fredrikw » Tue May 11, 2010 8:39 am

This is a good example of why we shouldn't complicate things. :)

I live by giving the benefit of the doubt, and not going out of my way finding excuses to eat something which is debatable. When discussing veganism and animal rights with non-vegan people they usually have no problem with this stand point because it's quite understandable. If I however were to get involved in complicated scientific reasoning or biological definitions there would probably be lots of weaknesses in my arguments and knowledge of the subject, and all of a sudden the discussion would turn into something completely different.
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Re: The Ethics of Eating Bivalves?

Postby jacket » Tue May 11, 2010 9:23 am

I'm not an oyster expert but according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, apparently they have b12, iron, zinc all this other good stuff. (I also read protein, somewhere?) In a less than palatable form, but still :p but now I recall they can absorb some nasty stuff too, I think it's mercury?? I've read that oyster farms are generally not as bad as fish farming, environmentally speaking - less waste by products, more sustainable, something like that. But you make a fair point; I guess the oysters would have to be sustainably farmed to the point of being as or less environmentally damaging than non-animal farming for them to be a viable alternative to it from an ecological standpoint.

Fredrikw - I wouldn't calling it finding excuses... if it's a legitimate topic, I don't see why it shouldn't be fully explored on it’s own merit – like I said, I have absolutely no desire to eat an oyster ever, but I’d like to work out where I stand on the issue anyway.

But I see your point from a lack-of-knowledge standpoint, because I'm no biologist and there's no way I can say for sure how an oyster feels about being eaten... It's not really a chance I'd like to take :|
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Re: The Ethics of Eating Bivalves?

Postby baldy » Tue May 11, 2010 9:33 am

jacket wrote:... oysters (technically bivalves, which include scallops/clams/oysters/mussels) were really in essence no different from plants

This is the bit I think you can pick to pieces. If you put a lobster, mussel and piece of seaweed next to each other, its clear the mussel is more similar to the lobster than the seaweed.
My seafood allergy also knows this, lobsters and oysters all trigger the same response so they must have some similar genes (I assume).
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Re: The Ethics of Eating Bivalves?

Postby Gelert » Tue May 11, 2010 10:52 am

jacket wrote:This is an issue I've been wondering about since reading something about in passing in The Ethics of What We Eat, by Peter Singer. He basically said in passing that oysters (technically bivalves, which include scallops/clams/oysters/mussels) were really in essence no different from plants


As a student of the tree of life in all its microbial glory, I'd say we're in essence no different from plants too. But that's a different story (cont. p94) which is a little too deep for Singer to understand.

Singer seems to be making the argument on the basis that oysters are sessile benthic organisms, which is the invertebrate zoologist's £20 word way of saying they sit on the seabed and do fuck all apart from filterfeeding.

You could replace "seabed" with "sofa" and "filterfeeding" with "watching Jeremy Kyle" and use it as an argument for eating the serially unemployed. And students.

Genetically, oysters are animals. They're well seated within the mollusc phylum. If you want to diss the mollusc phylum as being planty, prepare to diss 18 out of 29 of the phyla of the animal kingdom as being infinitely more "planty"

Image

Regarding sentience, I'm aware from the days when I was inflicted with those £20 words that molluscs are definitely aware enough of their surroundings. They are easily enough pissed off by an intruding HB pencil.

All this highlights is the mega problem with listening to philosophers such as Singer say nuthin' and say it loud about biology. Big ethical proclaimations can be made by these people (sometimes sensible ones) but often about things which they have no more understanding than an interested layperson.

All this said, in fairness to Singer, the internets tell me he said this in 1975 and has since retracted the assertion that they're plant-like. I'd like to think someone from the zoology faculty reached over the table in the refectory at Princeton and bitchslapped him with a stinging nettle for it.

I would hope that someone from the ecology faculty borrows that nettle soon as he's now claiming there are no environmental grounds upon which not to eat oysters. There are.

I'm not an intertidal zone biologist but before one floats by are a few off the top of my head.

*Oysters are keystone species. That is they play a fundamental role in structuring their habitat and the community of organisms present in it. Fuck with them, you fuck the whole habitat. Dozens of other species depend on them. It would be like killing beavers and expecting no change in the whole riverine catchment when their dams wash away.

*Oysters filterfeed litres and litres of water. They extract lots of nasties from them. These include nitrogenous pollutants. We sweat about CO2 but the other big pollutants (post Haber process definitely) are nitrates and ammonia. These are awesome nutrients and their presence in excess results in eutrophication and phytoplankton blooms. These use up much of the dissolved oxygen and results in big problems for other aquatic life forms. Oysters suck up nitrogen sources like nothing else. This keeps their whole postal code tickety boo.

*They also accumulate a range of toxic substances. Heavy metals, nasty organic compounds and human pathogens all get taken out of circulation. To the extent that if you want a picture of the "health" of an area, you look at its oysters and mussels.

In conclusion, this argument is Singer at his speciesist best, arguing that because something isn't fluffy or furry or just recognizably animal at the first glance it's OK to eat. I've made arguments elsewhere (cont. p94) that even plants aren't that stoopid really and that much of the living world is far more switched on than we give it credit. At the end of the day even veganism is a compromise. I wonder what would he make of that when having compile lists of what's OK to eat and is not in his uneducated opinion.
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Re: The Ethics of Eating Bivalves?

Postby JP » Tue May 11, 2010 11:08 am

Gelert wrote:Fuck with them, you fuck the whole habitat


from now on i am going to use that every time someone brings up eating oysters, which is... probably twice in the 18 years of vegan campaigning :D

good summary G!
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Re: The Ethics of Eating Bivalves?

Postby Hiking Fox » Tue May 11, 2010 11:18 am

jacket wrote:Because I’ve always found his arguments logically thought out and well researched, and I respect Singer as a philosopher, I thought this idea deserved further thought.


I think he's a tosser. I stopped reading "Animal Liberation" when I got to the bit about how there's no ethical problem with free range eggs. If he wants to eat eggs and so-called "lower" animal life forms, that's his business, but he shouldn't set himself up as elder spokesman of the animal rights movement while doing it.
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Re: The Ethics of Eating Bivalves?

Postby Gelert » Tue May 11, 2010 1:20 pm

JP wrote:
Gelert wrote:Fuck with them, you fuck the whole habitat


from now on i am going to use that every time someone brings up eating oysters, which is... probably twice in the 18 years of vegan campaigning :D

good summary G!


Cheers.

There's about fifty species that depend on them from the habitats they form.

I spoke with a real marine biologist over lunch about this who confirmed much of my witterings. And then some.

It doesn't surprise me that this is such a rare issue - it's a bit like the eggs or honey thing. I get the impression that there's a small bunch of closet omnivores out there who spend their time repressing themselves into being vegan and occasionally binging by writing a list of animals they consider permissible to fuck with on the quiet.

I except the OP, Jacket from that description - s/he just seems like yet another vegan who has been confused, bemused and amused and as a result potentially led astray by this misinformation. Which is why it matters.

It's almost like this

Confused: But Peter Singer says it's OK to eat oysters...
Me: What if Peter Singer said it was OK to slip your grandma a bolus of 4-5 milligrams of ketamine per kilogram body weight via a wide-bore IV line and then garrote her with her own shoelaces before marinating her with red wine, mixed herbs and bayleaves. It would be OK cos' she'd feel no pain but instead feel like she's drifting out of her body and meeting God because of ketamine's inherent psychotomimetic effects
Confused: Erhh?
Me: Would you eat her?
Confused: No! It would be wrong!
Me: But he's a Professor of Bioethics who's saying that! He's an expert.
Confused: But I think it would be wrong!
Me: Then why listen to him about oysters? Or eggs? What do you think?

I can feel myself turning into a junior member of the sixty-something write-to-your-local-rag brigade when I say this, but when I get a supply of official headed paper for the first time sometime this autumn I'd like one of my first acts to be to send a proper academic bollocking with bells on to Singer imploring him not to talk shit about stuff that even a first year undergrad in biology sobering up from drinking their own bodyweight in alcopop should understand.

Quite frankly it's an embarrassment to Princeton that they have a Professor in Bioethics on the faculty who should be sat front and centre in at least half a dozen introductory level courses in biosciences to correct his basic ignorance.

I suppose it would be unduly lowering the tone to slip in a DVD of "Mr. Hands" to point out the logical fallacy in his statement on zoophilia that animal-human sex is OK so long as the animal isn't hurt.
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Re: The Ethics of Eating Bivalves?

Postby xrodolfox » Tue May 11, 2010 2:27 pm

Well put Gelert.

Now, where can I get approximately 375g of ketamine for my grandma? She's aged well enough.
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Re: The Ethics of Eating Bivalves?

Postby Gelert » Tue May 11, 2010 3:16 pm

xrodolfox wrote:Now, where can I get approximately 375g of ketamine for my grandma? She's aged well enough.


Whoa rodolfo, either you've messed up the units there (I didn't realize you were a doctor!) or this needs to be done as urgency as your gran would go a long way to eliminating third world starvation!

Try a friendly veterinarian. They use it for anaethetising anything from horses to hedgehogs (it takes about 20 times more per equivalent body weight to put a hedgehog under than it does a gran, or so the net tells me)
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Re: The Ethics of Eating Bivalves?

Postby The Duke » Tue May 11, 2010 5:12 pm

I only dropped by this thread because I misread the title.

I thought it read "The Ethics of Eating Beaver". :)
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Re: The Ethics of Eating Bivalves?

Postby Enhydra Lutris » Tue May 11, 2010 6:49 pm

Bivalves (mussels etc) have a mouth, oesophagus, stomach, intestines and anus, they have gills, heart, nerves and sensory organs for detecting light and chemicals, they have some seriously strong muscles and can (depending on species) move around on a surface (quite rapidly actually), dig down in the sediment or swim away when threatened. They are closest related to gastropods (snails and slugs) and cephalopods (squids and octopuses).

What more do you need to classify as an animal :?:
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Re: The Ethics of Eating Bivalves?

Postby Johnboy74 » Tue May 11, 2010 9:27 pm

Enhydra Lutris wrote:Bivalves (mussels etc) have a mouth, oesophagus, stomach, intestines and anus, they have gills, heart, nerves and sensory organs for detecting light and chemicals, they have some seriously strong muscles and can (depending on species) move around on a surface (quite rapidly actually), dig down in the sediment or swim away when threatened. They are closest related to gastropods (snails and slugs) and cephalopods (squids and octopuses).

What more do you need to classify as an animal :?:


Spot on post!
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Re: The Ethics of Eating Bivalves?

Postby xrodolfox » Tue May 11, 2010 9:28 pm

Gelert wrote:
xrodolfox wrote:Now, where can I get approximately 375g of ketamine for my grandma? She's aged well enough.


Whoa rodolfo, either you've messed up the units there (I didn't realize you were a doctor!) or this needs to be done as urgency as your gran would go a long way to eliminating third world starvation!

Try a friendly veterinarian. They use it for anaethetising anything from horses to hedgehogs (it takes about 20 times more per equivalent body weight to put a hedgehog under than it does a gran, or so the net tells me)


I did mess up the units. Clearly, my grandmother weighs approximately 65kg. I wanted to have 50mg more *just in case*. You know. Just in case.
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