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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.

Industrial Agriculture is sooo 20th century. As America moves forward with a new agenda of change, our food system is getting a green, healthy makeover that promises to leave thousands of food and farm advocates with nothing to do.

For decades, foodies, animal welfare advocates, labor and environmentalists have joined together in an effort to educate their peers and affect policy change with the broad goal of improving the way our food is grown, processed, distributed and eaten. They've snuck into animal factories with hidden cameras, staged protests in Washington and boycotted fast food establishments. They've shopped at farmers markets and planted seeds in community gardens. They've formed a massive and remarkably powerful food and farm movement, and in general, they've kept quite busy reaching for a goal that until recently seemed completely futile and utterly out of reach.

But soon these dedicated food fighters may find themselves with little to do but sit down and eat.

First, it was just announced that the Obama's are putting in their very own vegetable garden on the White House lawn. This is something that the food movement has been dreaming of since day one, and not one but two separate organizations -- Eat the View and the White House Organic Farm Project -- have been tirelessly promoting for years. Since this week's announcement that the garden is actually in the works, it's hard to imagine what these groups are going to do to keep busy -- maybe they could work on getting Jimmy Carter's solar panels back on the White House roof.

In other exciting news, on March 14th something kind of crazy happened: the USDA banned the slaughter of downer cows. For years, the downer cow has been a compelling symbol of the extreme cruelty and unbridled mechanization that characterizes modern animal farms and slaughterhouses. The web is strewn with videos of nearly-dead, non-ambulatory cattle being dragged, forklifted and shoved through the gates of muddy abattoirs to be slaughtered, butchered and injected into the food supply.

The heart-wrenching and stomach-turning images of downer cows have been an effective tool in converting ignorantly blissful burger addicts into soldiers for PETA, Sierra Club and Slow Food, and eliminating these sad creatures from our food system is a fairly small but truly meaningful step forward.

So the USDA up and banned them. (Wait, they can do that? If the USDA could do that all along, why didn't this pass decades ago?)

Environmentalists, who for years have fought tooth and nail against an EPA and USDA whose powers were seemingly limited to pandering to corporate evil-doers, are now pleasantly surprised and perhaps even a little shocked to see that these institutions can actually fulfill their mandates of promoting public health and environmental sustainability.

Eco-leaders like NRDC President Francis Beinecke are publishing lists of all the advances that the new administration has already made with regards to environmental policy, and noting how good it feels to have people in Washington who are actually on their side.

And although most within the food movement growled in frustration when Obama appointed former Iowa Governor and biotech industry insider Tom Vilsack to head the USDA, many are starting to warm up to him. Vilsack has adopted the rhetoric of the new administration with unhesitating fluency, and in his speeches has talked about things like child nutrition, fruits and vegetables, local and regional food distribution and small farms.

Revolutionary? No. But you would have had to be on psychedelics to hear those kinds of things come forth from the mouths of any of G. W. Bush's three USDA chiefs. Perhaps the best move that Obama's USDA has made to earn the trust of the food movement was appointing Kathleen Merrigan as his deputy.