Sarah Palin's latest swat at science

Fruit fly research is helping a booming new food industry in America -- not that the vice-presidential candidate is aware of it.

Published October 27, 2008 10:36AM (EDT)

Sarah Palin, the Republican nominee for vice president of the United States, does not appear to know as much about science as a smart 5th grader. Perhaps you have heard this. On Oct. 24, during a policy speech in Pittsburgh, she went after that darn "earmark money" again.

"You guys have heard some of the examples of where those dollars go," the fun Alaska governor said to the guys in the audience, acknowledging their media savvy about Congress members, who sometimes acquire public money for frivolous projects. "You've heard about the bridges. And some of these pet projects. They really don't make a whole lot of sense."

A troubled look crossed her face. "And sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good, things like ..." she grinned, shaking her head side to side, her voice rising to a facetious pitch "... fruit fly research in Paris, France." Feeling in tune with the guys in her audience, she added, "I kid you not."

From the point of view of the confident governor, who reportedly once remarked that "dinosaurs and humans walked the Earth at the same time," contradicting 200 years of paleontology, you can see how spending public money to study fruit flies seems so dumb.

It's difficult to know what Palin cared about during the 5th grade. But had she been curious about science, she could have learned that the humble fruit fly has the most fabled pedigree in biology. Following Mendel and his famous peas, major discoveries in genetics -- that genes are aligned on chromosomes; that chromosomes determine gender -- have come from the fruit fly.

One could recommend that Palin read Jonathan Weiner's wonderful book, "Time, Love, Memory," about the scientists who pioneered the studies of the insect known as drosophila. Or maybe she should just hop on the Web site of the great San Francisco science museum for kids, the Exploratorium, to read about the fruit flies' starring role in genetics. Either way, she would learn that many of the human genes that have been implicated in birth defects and serious diseases have counterparts in the insects.

To scientists, fruit flies are ideal subjects because they have a short life cycle and breed like, well, flies. In a matter of weeks, biologists can determine how flies with defective genes behave, giving them a good indication of how a gene therapy may be designed. As many scientists have pointed out since Palin heartlessly mocked the insect, fruit fly research has been key in understanding autism, a subject about which Palin perpetually broadcasts her interest, as she has an autistic nephew.

There's another serious side to Palin's swat at fruit fly research. The French study that she says is doing no public good is no doubt a reference to money secured by Mike Thompson, a Democratic congressman in California's Napa Valley, which was highlighted by the Citizens Against Government Waste as one of its top "oinkers" of 2008. The money is being used to fund research into the olive fruit fly.

In April, when Thompson won the dubious achievement, he responded: "The olive fruit fly has infested thousands of California olive groves and is the single largest threat to the U.S. olive and olive oil industries." He explained that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will employ a portion ($211,000) of the $750,000 award for research in France. "This USDA research facility is located in France because Mediterranean countries like France have dealt with the olive fruit fly for decades, while California has only been exposed since the late 1990s," he said.

Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., which singled out the olive fruit fly study for ridicule, has long been in the good graces of Palin's running mate, John McCain. Its political lobbying arm has twice supported McCain for president. As the Washington Post reported in May, the group ventured onto murky legal ground when it produced an ad that defended McCain for supporting a $40 billion defense contract to Northrop Grumman and its European counterparts. Democrats and labor unions charged that the contract moved tens of thousands of jobs abroad.

In 2006, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Citizens Against Government Waste "has traded on its watchdog reputation by taking money from companies and trade associations and then conducted lobbying and public relations campaigns on their behalf." That includes the tobacco industry and clients of fallen lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In its investigation of Abramoff, a Senate committee scolded CAGW for "producing public relations materials favorable to Mr. Abramoff's clients," in exchange for fees. Regardless, McCain continues to herald the group. Following the release of its annual Pig Book in April, he stated, "Once again, my friends at CAGW have done a great job of compiling a comprehensive list of unnecessary and wasteful pork barrel projects."

To the U.S. olive industry, eradicating the fruit fly is certainly not an unnecessary project. Just now, California, the only state with a commercially significant olive crop, is home to 1,500 farms with a total of 40,000 acres devoted to olives. By comparison, Spain has more than 5.5 million oil acres, grown by 570,000 producers.

But since 1996, the production of California olive oil has blossomed 170 percent, and continues to sprout. As the University of California at Davis reports, that growth is because "health-conscious consumers have led a revival in olive oil as a flavorful alternative to vegetable oils."

Paul Vossen, farm advisor of the University of California Cooperative Extension, and an expert in olives, puts those numbers in perspective. "If each gallon of olive oil sells for $22.50 in the bulk market," he notes, "that would be a value of almost $17 million and quite similar to winter pears, kiwi and figs." Translated into the retail sales of olive oil, he adds, the value of the California olive oil industry would be nearly $85 million.

A healthy industry, for sure, and one now threatened by the fruit fly. A University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources report declares that currently "the olive fruit fly occurs in at least 41 counties in California," adding that in other areas of the world where the olive fruit fly has flourished, the pest has wiped out 100 percent of some olive varieties. As Thompson knew, a 2004 USDA report did not mince words: "The recent establishment of the olive fruit fly ... in California has threatened to destroy the U.S. olive industry."

This is why the California congressman called for $750,000 to study the olive pest. Better understanding its genetic makeup and why it flourishes under certain conditions may lead to an effective and safe pesticide. You might imagine that a conservative vice president candidate would be on board with a burgeoning American industry showing signs of beating Europe at its own game. But then you would not be thinking of Palin.


By Kevin Berger

Kevin Berger is the former features editor at Salon.

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