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Cooking out for conservation

Ahhh, sweet summertime – the season of pool parties, blockbuster movies, backyard barbecues and community cookouts. As we enjoy the culinary offerings at these events, we may not be thinking about our personal health (in fact, I’d encourage you not to). The beauty of a One Health perspective is that we don’t need to focus solely on our individual health. Instead, let’s consider how the contents of our plates affect environmental and human health around the world. 

Before you roll your eyes, rest assured that I am not here to tell you what you should and shouldn’t eat! I’m a firm believer that how you do something is usually more important than what you do. If you are looking for easy ways to reduce your diet’s impact on the planet, focus less on what you eat and more on how the food you choose is produced.  

Let’s consider some typical cookout foods like burgers, corn on the cob, and ice cream. How can the impact of each of these dishes on the environment be minimized? These days, you have a plethora of options for burgers – veggie, black bean, turkey, beef, and more. A major impact to consider here is greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Plant-based options generally result in lower emissions. If you prefer a carnivorous diet, turkey or chicken will usually have lower emissions than beef, but no matter what type of animal-based meat you prefer, you still have many other factors to consider with a One Health approach. For example, meats labeled with the Department of Agriculture’s organic seal have not been treated with antibiotics and therefore are less likely to contribute to antibiotic resistance, which is a major concern for global public health. You can also look for meat produced locally (within your home state) on small farms, which will be associated with lower carbon emissions. 

The produce section is another area where organic options are likely better for the planet. An even better option is to shop at your local farmers markets. While small farms may not be officially licensed as organic due to the cost of certification, many still operate with the same or even better practices. Shopping locally has the added benefit of reduced carbon emissions related to transportation. If you really want to go above and beyond, you can also find out if produce or pasture-raised animals were part of a regenerative agriculture system. There’s no official definition of this, but it usually means that a producer focuses on maintaining healthy cycles of nature. 

For packaged foods like ice cream and potato chips, the Palm Oil Scan app can help you know which brands are committed to improving the sustainability of the palm oil in their products. Supporting these brands helps endangered species like orangutans and Sumatran tigers, but it also helps people, too. The RSPO has a Human Rights Working Group dedicated to ensuring that member companies offer fair wages, safe working conditions, and fair dispute management. 

If you are thinking, “I just want to plan a cookout. I don’t want to spend four hours in the grocery store trying to figure out what to buy,” I completely understand. But you don’t need to do everything discussed here to make a difference. I always recommend starting small. Everyone does not have the same access to food options due to their location or budget. Think about what is feasible for you and the options available (organic, regenerative, antibiotic-free, RSPO, locally grown, farmer’s market, which meat you have that you can choose from, etc.) Start there and get into a habit, then slowly add things over time. Before you know it, you’ll be a conservation superhero! 

Here are a few recommendations if you want to take it a step further and get involved in your community: 

  • Volunteer in your local community garden or start your own! SeedMoney has resources and funding applications available to start new community gardens. 
  • Learn about what’s going on in your community already. Did you know that Atlanta now has the largest free food forest in the country?  
  • Check out Atlanta’s events and programs, including “Grows-A-Lot,” a City of Atlanta program that invites entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and residents to apply for a five-year renewable license to adopt a vacant, city-owned property to start a new urban garden or urban farm.


Calvo, T., & Meltzer-Warren, R. (2020, September 10). What ‘no antibiotics’ claims really mean. Consumer Reports. Retrieved from https://www.consumerreports.org/overuse-of-antibiotics/what-no-antibiotic-claims-really-mean/ 

Dunne, D. (n.d.). Interactive: What is the climate impact of eating meat and dairy? Carbon Brief. Retrieved June 29, 2022 from https://interactive.carbonbrief.org/what-is-the-climate-impact-of-eating-meat-and-dairy/ 

McEvoy, M. (2019, March 13). Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means. Retrieved from https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2012/03/22/organic-101-what-usda-organic-label-means 

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. (n.d.). Human Rights & Social Standards. Retrieved June 29, 2022 from https://rspo.org/human-rights-and-social-standards 

White Oak Pastures. (2021, October 4). The Cycles of Nature: How We Regenerate Land. Retrieved from https://blog.whiteoakpastures.com/blog/the-cycles-of-nature-how-we-regenerate-land 


Sarah Hamilton
Interpretation Specialist


Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl