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Why What's For Dinner May Be About to Change

From a White House garden to rule changes at factory farms, the era of industrial ag calling the shots is changing.

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Merrigan has been a prominent and reputable expert in the food, agriculture and nutrition world and is a champion for the food movement. When her appointment was announced back in February, the online environmental community let out a collective cheer, and it is rumored that agribusiness leaders shared a disappointed sigh as they met in their secret bunker located sixteen stories below a large Atrazine factory somewhere in the Midwest (although we'll never know for sure).

The USDA has recently sent out press releases promoting child nutrition, their "People's Garden," (which is really just a plot of grass outside their office building but promises to be a veggie garden at some point), and an overview of the 2007 agriculture census emphasizing and celebrating the growth of small farms.

The Department has also committed to research that will help farmers reduce their dependency on fossil fuels, and just instituted a "COOL" labeling law that requires that all unprocessed foods be labeled with the name of their country of origin -- a first step towards more comprehensive food labels and a better informed population of eaters.

And it doesn't stop with the USDA -- even the EPA has been caught doing its job recently. In Maryland, the Agency has just begun enforcing a six year-old law requiring Chicken CAFOs ("CAFO" refers to very large livestock operations) to get manure permits as part of its effort to protect the notoriously polluted Chesapeake Bay watershed. Manure from massive animal factories has only just become a priority for the EPA, even though scientists, environmentalists and rural communities have been reporting on the adverse ecological and health effects of this waste for decades.

This month the EPA announced it will sever agreements with dairy and beef CAFOs that have kept the agency from regulating how they deal with their waste, and the Agency also plans to begin requiring large animal farms to monitor and report on the greenhouse gases emitted from their manure ponds.

Even the FDA is getting geared up for the overhaul that advocates have been requesting for far too long, and food advocates expect great things from the Agency's new head, Margaret Hamburg, who has a reputation for putting science and human health before politics. As a whole, the Federal Government is taking on food and agriculture as a central component of our failing health system.

Obama's 2010 federal budget reflect this, and sets aside a $1 billion annual increase for improving child nutrition in order to meet the President's goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015. Notably, the budget also includes language that -- according to the Administration -- "reflects the President's commitment to supporting independent producers... and investing in the full diversity of agricultural production, including organic farming and local food systems."

The budget also increases funding for the National Organic Program, and removes direct payment subsidies for farms that pull in over $500,000 in revenue per year. This reduction in subsidies represents an important shift away from a commodities-based agriculture system where certain crops (namely corn and soy) permeate our food supply and serve as the primary ingredient in everything we eat, from processed snack foods to meat and cheese.

As the Administration cuts back on these subsidies and promotes fruits and vegetables (which have thus far been referred to as "specialty crops"), the country is positioned to inherit the kind of healthy food supply that has been out of reach since the Second World War.

Now, as promising as all this news is, our food system still has a long way to go and the era of the factory farm has certainly not come to its much-anticipated end. Our country is still getting 75 percent of its food from a mere five percent of farms, and organic and local foods continue to represent a relatively minute portion of the average American diet.