Organic consumers not very concerned about GE

(Hat tip to Elton Robinson at South East Farm Press)

The Consumers Union wanted to know what consumers felt about genetically engineered crops cross-pollinating with organic crops. So in early February, they conducted a poll. They called a thousand random people over the phone and asked them just two questions:

1. Do you buy organic food, such as produce, meat or dairy products? (Yes/No)

2. Please rate your concern with organic food crops that are contaminated by genetic engineering. Are you…

  • Extremely concerned
  • Very concerned
  • Somewhat concerned
  • Not concerned at all

Sounds like a pretty simple exercise. However, I question the use of the term “contaminated.” This is a loaded term, and assumes one of the things that they want people to believe – that organic agriculture should not include genetic engineering. This introduces a bias into the poll. For instance, if you asked these two similar and benign questions, you would get two different results:

A. Please rate your concern with organic food crops that cross-pollinate with hybrid crops.

B. Please rate your concern with organic food crops that are contaminated by pollen from hybrid crops.

Of course, hybrids are allowed in organic agriculture, but I’ll bet my backyard garden harvest for this entire year that if you ask these two questions the word ‘contaminated’ will have a measurable effect and cause people to answer that they are more concerned than they would be otherwise.

Ok, that issue aside, it is good that the Consumers Union did a poll such as this, because there hasn’t been very much research investigating what people really think about genetic engineering and organic agriculture, and there’s been some talk about it in numerous channels. So how concerned are consumers about this “contamination?”

The Consumers Union announced its results on the 2nd of March:

Consumers Union Poll: Two-Thirds of Organic Foods Consumers Concerned with Genetically Engineered Contamination

Results Contradict USDA’s Position That Consumers Don’t Care

Yonkers, NY—Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, today released new poll data showing that two-thirds of organic food consumers are concerned about genetically engineered (GE) ingredients contaminating organic food. Given the popularity of alfalfa sprouts among health-oriented eaters, Consumers Union urges the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to consider the overwhelming consumer concern before deciding to allow GE alfalfa on the market. USDA has until Wednesday, March 3 to receive public comment on its draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on approval of GE alfalfa. The poll results can be found online at Poll_Public Release_Feb 2010.pdf.

What did they find? Although they linked to the paper itself, those less inclined to delve into those details can easily just read a few more lines down to find out what people thought.

A majority of respondents expressed some level of concern with genetic engineering contamination of organic food crops. Overall, 58% said they were extremely concerned, very concerned or somewhat concerned with this contamination.

Two-thirds (66%) of consumers who purchase organic food indicated being concerned versus half (50%) of those who don’t make organic food purchases.

This announcement came one day before the close of the comment period for the Environmental Impact Statement for GE alfalfa. It seems that this poll was conducted specifically to address the question of organic concern over GE crops, which has been amplified recently by calls from the Center for Food Safety that has been challenging the biotech alfalfa and recently, sugar beets in court. 58% of consumers concerned about pollen drift from GE crops to organic crops sounds like an impressive opposition! However, if you read the poll results themselves, you will find that they found the opposite of what was claimed in the press release.

Luckily, they published the poll results so that inquiring minds could figure out what was being obscured from casual readers. I have reproduced their main data table, showing the breakdown of consumer opinions:

Buy Organic Don’t Buy Organic
Gender Age Gender Age
Buy Organic Men Women 18-34 35-54 55+ Don’t Buy Men Women 18-34 35-54 55+
Respondent Base 998 528 236 292 183 193 151 469 247 222 122 187 159
Extremely concerned 11 12 12 13 12 15 10 9 4 15 11 8 7
Very concerned 13 18 11 24 18 17 19 7 5 10 9 6 8
Somewhat concerned 34 35 36 35 32 36 39 33 31 36 46 30 28
Not concerned at all 41 33 40 28 37 32 30 49 59 39 34 54 55
Don’t know 1 1 1 1 1 0 2 1 1 1 0 1 1

As you can see, when you look at the individual percentages for each response, it comes out completely different from how they describe. The category with the highest number of responses is “Not concerned at all” at 41 percent followed by “Somewhat concerned” at 34 percent.  “Very concerned” and “Extremely Concerned” only make up 13 and 11 percent each. While their categorical description that consumers expressing any level of concern at all add up to 58%, this hides the distribution of the level of concern.

Usually when you design a poll (assuming you don’t use loaded terms!) you try to include several responses that can inform you about the distribution of respondents’ opinions. This is often on a 1 to 5 scale, where 3 is the neutral or undecided category. This poll had five categories, with “Extremely concerned” at one end and “Not at all concerned” at the other end. The next two categories inward from the extreme positions are the moderate opinions, “Very concerned” and “Somewhat concerned”. Somewhat concerned is the moderate partner of Not at all concerned, and if you were to properly categorize is on the scale of concern, it goes with “Not at all concerned.”

To put it another way, say you designed a poll that asked people if they had any politically conservative opinions. The responses could be, “Extremely conservative,” “Very conservative,” [Neutral],  “Somewhat conservative,” and “Not at all conservative.” You would find moderate liberals who have some conservative opinions falling under the “somewhat conservative” category. But would it make any sense to say that people in this category count overall as conservatives? That’s what the Consumers Union did.

You could say that they could have designed better responses. This would go hand-in-hand with a more neutrally-worded question.

“Somewhat concerned” = “Not very concerned” (but still a little concerned…)

The vast majority of consumers polled by the Consumers Union are not very concerned or not at all concerned about organic “contamination” by GE crops, at 75% of the sample. Those who are very or extremely concerned only make up 24%. Even amongst the people who say that they buy organic food, it is still 68% not to 30% yes. Those who don’t buy organic are 82% to 16%.

Mind you, half of the people who answered the phone at dinnertime said that they buy organic food, and since we all know that organic makes up only about 2% of the food out there, they’re not all buying a lot of it. I imagine that the hard-core organic folks are far more in the “very” and “extremely” concerned categories. Perhaps they should have asked how much organic food respondents purchased, perhaps there would have been an interesting trend from low concern to high concern as you go from infrequent to frequent organic food consumption?

In case there was any doubt in your mind about the shape of public opinion, here’s a handy graph of the answer to their poll question:

So I think it is pretty clear that the actual distribution of the results differ from the way readers were led to believe. And these results are right in line with the USDA’s analysis of general consumer opinions on GE crops. And, might I add, maybe Michael Pollan’s as well. The fact is, most consumers do not really care very much if at all – it’s not on their radar screen. The Consumers Union, although accurately quoting the 58% figure, is still misleading people when they say that their poll data disagrees with the USDA’s conclusion.

But it doesn’t stop there, look at what Michael Hansen, their senior scientist said:

“The EIS states that consumers and organic farmers don’t care if their organic food is GE contaminated,” said Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist with Consumers Union. “Consumers Union’s poll states the exact opposite: consumers care greatly.”

But as we have seen from looking at the actual results from their own poll, this is entirely NOT the case. I don’t know very much about the Consumers Union, and I know even less about Michael Hansen, but he is being flagrantly dishonest about their results. Since he is the senior scientist for the Consumers Union and this is an official press release, this reflects poorly on the organization itself as well. There are all kinds of cases where wishful thinking plays a role in people’s opinions of polls and trends like this, but you cannot conclude what Hansen has from this data. It is rare that I find cases where I can say for sure that falsehoods are knowingly being propagated, and this is one of them.

If this is what they do with reasonable and understandable data, I daresay we should be wary if the Consumers Union does any more polls on genetic engineering in the future.

Finally, here’s the big irony – let’s come back to what I said about using the term “contaminated.” Even though the question was loaded, they still couldn’t produce the result they were looking for!

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.