grillGetting hot in here.Once, the meat industry acted with impunity, confident that its lobbying clout in Washington could deflect any challenges to its practices. But now, it finds itself on the defensive.

In northwest Iowa, the EPA  has taken the brazen, virtually unheard-of step of actually enforcing the Clean Water Act for CAFOs, or concentrated animal feedlot operations. The agency has “documented significant water quality problems” with eight mid-sized cattle feedlots there. “Runoff from CAFOs may contain such pollutants as pathogens and sediment, as well as nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, all of which can harm aquatic life and impact water quality,” the agency declared in a press release. That’s not the newsflash. The newsflash is that the agency is actually doing something about it.

Meanwhile, in another CAFO-intensive state, Ohio, factory-scale animal farmers have blinked in a showdown with citizen activism. The state’s massive egg, hog, and veal industries stand “on the verge of significant change,” reports Erik Eckholm in The New York Times.

Then there’s the USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA), which watched idly for years while the meatpacking industry consolidated to a handful of market-dominating companies. Suddenly, GIPSA is baring fangs like a real watchdog, proposing rules that would rein in monopolistic practices. How serious would the proposed rules be? They’ve inspired an “intense lobbying effort by the corporate meat companies and organizations working to weaken” them, Reuters reports.

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When I put these news items together, I start to smell victory for the sustainable-food movement, that loose alliance of citizens and nonprofit groups demanding an ecologically robust, socially just, and humane food system. The Times‘ Eckholm is smelling it, too:

The surprise truce in Ohio follows stronger limits imposed by California voters in 2008; there, extreme caging methods will be banned altogether by 2015. In another sign of the growing clout of the animal welfare movement, a law passed in California this year will also ban imports from other states of eggs produced in crowded cages. Similar limits were approved last year in Michigan and less sweeping restrictions have been adopted in Florida, Arizona and other states.   

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He adds that, in addition to the Humane Society’s efforts, “The rising consumer preference for more ‘natural’ and local products and concerns about pollution and antibiotic use in giant livestock operations are also driving change.”

I would add that more even than consumer preference, change has been driven by political action. HSUS won real reform in Ohio and California not by urging people to “vote with their forks,” but rather by organizing them to rally around a ballot initiative. In taking baby steps to force the meat industry to respect clean-water and antitrust laws, the Obama administration is responding to political pressure from below, generated by the sustainable-food movement.

In social movements, time is best measured in decades, not years or months. Defeats are often spectacular — for example, Obama’s handing of the USDA research budget to a zealously anti-organic Monsanto-linked scientist — and victories are often subtle and little-noticed. But we might, just might, be on the brink of a major breakthrough in the field of meat production, which has evolved into an ecologically ruinous and socially insidious industry.