When surveys don’t give you the overwhelming result you’re looking for, there’s only one thing left to do — cook the numbers. This was the tactic employed by the Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports, after it conducted a poll recently on genetically engineered crops.

The CU was miffed by a USDA draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on GE alfalfa which in the CU’s words, “indicated that consumers and organic farmers don’t care if their organic food is GE contaminated.”

The CU created a poll to refute USDA’s EIS findings, but unfortunately for them, the results fell short of expectations. So apparently they turned the numbers over to the shrewdest and most ruthless manipulator of data they could find — their marketing department.

Consequently, on March 2, the poll results were released with a headline that blared, “Two-thirds of organic food consumers concerned with genetically-engineered contamination.”

Michael Hansen, senior scientist with the CU, declared that the CU poll contradicted USDA’s position, and showed that “consumers care greatly,” about potential GE contamination.

The CU news release went on to say, “Given the popularity of alfalfa sprouts among health-oriented eaters, Consumers Union urges USDA to consider the overwhelming consumer concern before deciding to allow GE alfalfa on the market.”

Closer examination reveals trickery afoot.

To its credit, the CU provided this link to the survey results, http://greenerchoices.org/pdf/OrganicFood Poll_Public Release_Feb 2010.pdf, perhaps hoping that few people would actually take a peek inside. I did, and discovered I could use the exact same numbers to arrive at a completely different conclusion.

I began with an assertion in the CU news release that “58 percent of all respondents were extremely concerned, very concerned or somewhat concerned with GE contamination.”

I found that in actuality, only 24 percent of all respondents were in the very concerned and extremely concerned categories, while 34 percent said they were only somewhat concerned. A whopping 41 percent claimed they were not concerned at all. To me, being somewhat concerned is a whole lot closer to being not concerned than it is to being very concerned or extremely concerned. In fact, if I tell a pollster I’m somewhat concerned, I might be saying I don’t much care at all. So my personal take would be that 75 percent were not very concerned or not concerned at all about GE contamination.

As to the CU’s claim that two-thirds of organic consumers were concerned about GE contamination, again it’s a matter of how you crunch the numbers. A surprising 33 percent of those who buy organic products were not concerned about GE contamination and 35 percent were only somewhat concerned. My conclusion therefore would be that 68 percent of organic consumers had very little or no concern about GE contamination.

So there you have it, two steaming plates of statistics, each half-baked to suit the taste du jour — with alfalfa sprouts on the side.

e-mail: erobinson@farmpress.com