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To Bivalves or Not to Bivalves: The Vegan Seafood Debate


There is an ongoing debate in the vegan community about what counts as “vegan” and what does not. Bivalves are at the heart of this argument, a large class of molluscs (also known as pelecypods). Bivalves have a hard calcareous shell made of two parts and soft parts inside the shell. The most popular known examples of bivalves include oysters, mussels, clams and scallops.

It may come as a surprise to some to learn that there is a group of vegans known as ostrovegans or bivalvegans that feel it is permissible to eat bivalves. Some vegans consider it morally acceptable and nutritionally beneficial to eat bivalves because they do not have a central nervous system, so they are unlikely to feel pain.

The bivalves debate is a controversial issue for vegans. It strikes the fundamental reasoning of what it means to be vegan as bivalves are animals, albeit not sentient ones. Many vegans would say it is best to avoid eating all animals and opt for vegan superfoods like spirulina. This article looks at the reason behind the argument of why some vegans choose to eat bivalves or not.

The Ostrovegan and Bivalvegan Movement

The most common definition of a “vegan” is not eating or using animal products. A person may choose a vegan lifestyle for many reasons, but it tends to be for ethical or nutritional purposes. Ostrovegans, on the other hand, are comfortable eating bivalves due to their lack of central nervous system.

The prefix “ostro” in ostrovegan derives from the Latin word for “oyster” – since ostrovegans are vegans who eat oysters. However, many of these vegans are also comfortable eating other bivalves such as mussels, scallops, and clams – so they may also choose to be referred to as bivalvegans.

Many vegans strongly disagree with the ostrovegan movement. They say it should not matter if bivalves are incapable of feeling pain or not – veganism is about not eating any animals, and bivalves are animals. Another line of argument against ostroveganism is that we do not know enough to be sure whether bivalves feel pain. Vegans may choose to be cautious and not eat them for that reason.

Bivalve Mollusks and Pain

Bivalve molluscs do have nerves. However, they are void of any brain or any other central nervous system. This means that animals such as oysters, mussels, clams and scallops may react to threats, but in a way that is more like a nerve reflex.

The nerve pathway followed by a reflex action is called a reflex arc. For example, a simple reflex arc happens if we accidentally touch something hot. Receptors in the skin detect a stimulus (the change in temperature), and the reflex arc pulls the hand back before feeling any sensation of pain.

The idea is that, without a brain, the pain would never happen – it would be just a reflex. For bivalves, the reflexes occur, and their nerves are firing without a brain. As far as we know, a brain is needed to experience pain.

Bivalves Nutritional Benefits

Apart from the argument around whether bivalves can feel pain or not, there is the crucial point that there are some great nutritional benefits for vegans eating bivalves. Of course, a fully vegan diet can be healthy for many people, but some vital nutrients are harder to encompass and require a little more thought.

Some superfoods like spirulina powder can help vegans get the nutrients required for a healthy balanced diet. There is one essential vitamin that is usually only found in animal foods – vitamin B12. Long-term vegans often find they need to supplement vitamin B12, and bivalves offer a potential source.

Bivalves are also packed with protein and other vital nutrients such as zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, and heme iron (the iron found in animal products and blood). The heme iron found in bivalves is more readily absorbed than the non-heme iron found in plants. There are, of course, multivitamin options available, and many vegans prefer this route instead of eating bivalves.

Environmental Impact of Farming Bivalves

The vegan lifestyle can also encompass an awareness of how their diet affects the environment. So it is not just the pain experienced by the individual animals – it is the impact their food products can have on the planet. Unfortunately, not all plant-based products are environmentally friendly, which results in some research needing to be done by eco vegans before purchasing food.

Bivalves such as oysters, mussels, and clams are not wild-caught – they are farmed instead. Many bivalve farms have received incredibly positive ratings from environmental groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund.

Unfortunately for vegan scallop lovers, they are more often caught wild. Furthermore, wild-caught scallops are collected via bycatch, resulting in other animals accidentally being caught and killed. Generally speaking, scallops are not as sustainable as other bivalves, so not as popular with vegans for moral reasons.

Closing Thoughts

Some will argue that most vegans will eat yeast, so why should they not also eat bivalves. In addition, when it comes to debating whether it is “vegan” to eat oysters and mussels, some individuals have the point of view that sessile bivalves may as well be categorised as plants for all ethically relevant purposes.

Are vegans who choose to continue to exclude bivalves from their diet honouring the basic definition of an animal? Instead, they could consider the central vegan concept of sentience. Plants and yeast are alive, and vegans are happy to eat them. It can be debated that vegans are okay to eat live things which are not sentient – including bivalves.

Whatever route vegans take when deciding what to eat, they must ensure they get the nutrients needed to support a healthy diet. Spirulina benefits vegans in many ways and is an excellent addition to a green plant-based lifestyle.


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