In September, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) posted a billboard in California urging people to “Ditch Dairy to Fight the Climate Crisis.” The message, which was prominently placed along Highway 99 in Tulare County, drew an immediate response from many in the area’s dairy industry.

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The location was chosen because, in recent years, Tulare County has had the highest revenues among all counties in the U.S. for milk production.

“The dairy industry was insulted by that billboard,” says Anja Raudabaugh, CEO of Western United Dairies (WUD), a trade organization representing more than 75% of the milk produced in California, according to its website. “When the billboard first went up, the volume of phone calls was pretty high. [The billboard] demonstrates a complete ignorance of how plant-based products are grown.”


The billboard message in Tulare County. Courtesy image.

Raudabaugh decided to respond by placing a billboard with the organization’s rebuttal on “a spot directly next to it.” A lack of available space next to the PCRM’s billboard led to the WUD’s posting on billboards in other locations in the area, as well as on the electronic board at the International Agri-Center in the city of Tulare.


Western United Dairies (WUD) responded to PCRM's anti-dairy billboard with a rebuttal on other billboards. A lack of available space next to the PCRM’s billboard led to the WUD’s posting on billboards in other locations in the area, as well as on the electronic board at the International Agri-Center in the city of Tulare. Courtesy images.


The PCRM, based in Washington, D.C., works to bring awareness about greenhouse gases and ways to reduce them. In addition to the billboard, the organization sent a letter to the California Environmental Protection Agency that started by stating, “California has the dubious distinction of being home to both the cattle feedlot that emits the most climate-warming methane emissions from cow burps in the United States and the feedlot where methane from cow burps was first detected from space. To help cut methane emissions from animal agriculture that is fueling the climate crisis, I urge the California Environmental Protection Agency to implement a climate change reduction strategy encouraging citizens to avoid animal products and adopt a plant-based diet …”


“A new study found that greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and land use would decline by 31 percent in 2050, compared to 2020, if globally 50 percent of animal products, including milk, are substituted with plant-based alternatives,” said Anna Herby, DHSc, nutrition education specialist for PCRM and the author of the letter. “The plant-based farming industry is booming. Other dairy farmers have switched from dairy to plant crops. For example, Carl Taber of Trumansburg, New York, phased out his dairy operation and now grows high-demand crops like chickpeas.”

An act and a law

The Peas, Legumes and Nuts Today (PLANT) Act of 2023, introduced in the U.S. Congress this summer, would ensure that farmers and companies producing plant-based food are eligible for USDA programs. The PLANT Act information sheet claims that the act could help add more than 200,000 new jobs. (There is no mention, however, of how it would affect dairy industry jobs.)

California’s Short-Lived Climate Pollutant Reduction Act (SB 1383), which was signed into law in 2016, established methane reduction targets in the state by setting goals to reduce disposal of organic waste in landfills and greenhouse gas emissions, such as methane, by 40% by 2030 by capturing or avoiding methane from manure at dairies.

“We hit that goal, but the state would like us to do more,” Raudabaugh says, noting that California has set a goal of reducing cow belching, which is a source of methane caused by a process called enteric fermentation, by 30%.

Market pressures are also putting pressure on dairy farmers to reduce greenhouse gases, along with continuing to improve the environment.

“Consumers want a much higher degree of sustainability,” Raudabaugh says. “They want us to reduce water consumption and they want us to reduce food waste. We’ve done a great job. The billboard was not a fair recognition of the work that has been done.”

California Cattle Council

The California Cattle Council (CCC) started its CalResilient campaign in the spring, which included a television commercial highlighting the work and investment made by the California dairy and cattle industries to reduce their environmental footprint. The commercial shows how almond hulls, distillers grain and bakery waste, which had previously been sent to landfills, now feed cows and cattle, and how digesters capture greenhouse gases and turn them into power for the grid.

“A lot of people talk about reducing emissions – what the government needs to be doing and what the industry needs to be doing,” says Justin Oldfield, executive director of the CCC. “The CCC was formed to take the message of producers and expand that out to California consumers.”

One of the messages is to make people aware that dairy farmers are making a large investment in reducing greenhouse gases.

“There are state funds to reduce emissions,” Oldfield says, “but just because the state is involved doesn’t mean that the individual (dairy farmer) hasn’t paid.”

More responses

Tom Tucker, Tulare County ag commissioner/sealer, has not lost sight of why dairy emissions have become an issue.

“It’s all in an effort to produce milk, which everyone wants or they wouldn’t be buying it,” he says. “Converting dairies to plant-based food producers would be an enormous challenge. Their entire investment is in cows, supplies and equipment. Most of that would not lend itself to growing plant-based products.”

He added that for many dairy owners, their investment in dairy is in the millions of dollars.

“Why do we even want to ask our dairies to do that?” he asked. “You can’t take one industry like that and essentially transfer into some other industry that someone is dictating you to do. For politicians and special-interest groups to mandate it would be wrong.”

And some are questioning the value of a plant-based diet in combating climate change. Author Jayne Buxton argues in The Great Plant-Based Con that your body needs protein that contains essential amino acids. Animal proteins effectively deliver them, but grains and salads may not.

“The grip of the problem is warming caused by fossil fuel use,” Buxton said in an interview. “Everything else is irrelevant. … Cutting out red meat is just a rearranging exercise.” 

Raudabaugh uses the term “popsicle meat” for plant-based meats. “They simply aren’t as good of a product,” she said.

Taxing cow burps?

The PCRM also posted billboards in Hereford and Littlefield, Texas, urging Governor Greg Abbott to “tax cow burps.” 


The PCRM also posted billboards in Hereford and Littlefield, Texas, urging Governor Greg Abbott to “tax cow burps.” Courtesy image.

“Several cattle feedlots in the Texas Panhandle emit among the highest amount of greenhouse gas emissions from the digestive process of cows in the United States,” Herby wrote in an April 11 letter to the Texas governor. “Phasing out meat industry operations is the best way to stem this crisis. But until that happens, I urge Texas to tax the state’s cattle feedlots and other meat-production-related facilities on their greenhouse gas emissions, and use that money to support climate-friendly crops that can help offset climate change and are beneficial for human health …”