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the steaks have never been higher

Kelly Sikkema

Grass-fed beef sales jumped 40 percent in 2015.

Conventional beef sales grew 6.5 percent during the same period, the Wall Street Journal reports. Grass-fed beef is still a small slice of overall beef sales — 1.4 percent — but more and more customers are willing to pay a hefty premium for the stuff. It’s often 30 to 80 percent more expensive than conventional beef.

Is this good for the environment? Conventional wisdom holds that grass-fed beef is a virtuous alternative, but in reality it depends. Cattle grazing on grassland can help soil suck up carbon, plus they don’t require corn and soy farms — that’s the climate benefit. But we still don’t have a good grasp on how much carbon different soils absorb, and how long the carbon stays buried. On the downside, grass-fed cattle take longer to grow: They often spend twice as long burping out methane compared to corn-finished cattle.

If we cut down forests to create new grass pastures, then grass-fed beef is a climate disaster. But, when the cattle graze in areas that wouldn’t otherwise be used for food crops, and ranchers manage to keep carbon sequestered in the soil, grass-fed beef can have a smaller climate hoofprint than the corn-finished norm.