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Creating Buzz: Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin called research on the olive fruit fly wasteful.

The French Fruit Fly Fracas

Martin is a contributing news editor and writer based in Amsterdam

PARIS--Coming from Sarah Palin, it sounded like the ultimate folly: U.S. taxpayer money funding a study of fruit flies in Paris, France. But scientists jumped to the defense of the work that the Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate derided as wasteful on 24 October during a speech in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The studies, actually carried out at a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) laboratory near Montpellier, 750 kilometers south of Paris, may help protect California olive trees from a serious pest, scientists say.

In a speech about her running mate John McCain's policies on children with disabilities, Palin condemned so-called earmarks, congressional mandates to spend money on specific projects. "You’ve heard about some of these pet projects, they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good," Palin said. "Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not." In a video of the speech, somebody can be heard snickering in the audience.

Palin's example came from the Web site of Citizens Against Government Waste, a private group claiming to fight government mismanagement that awarded Representative Mike Thompson (D-CA) a "French Kiss Off Award" in April for obtaining $211,509 for research on the olive fruit fly (Bactrocera oleae). As some bloggers were quick to point out, recent results from studies on other fruit fly species may help scientists understand autism, a disease Palin mentioned in her speech because her nephew has it. But the Thompson earmark is for the European Biological Control Laboratory (EBCL), administered by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), which studies ways to control invasive species in the United States by using their natural enemies.

California had been blissfully free of major olive pests until the olive fruit fly turned up near Los Angeles in 1998. Today, it's a "huge economic problem" around the state, says entomologist Frank Zalom of the University of California, Davis. Most growers now protect their crops with insecticides. Releasing a natural enemy might provide an alternative; it would also help protect olive trees in gardens and along roadsides that don't usually get sprayed, Zalom says.

So far, EBCL has identified at least six natural enemies of B. oleae, says ARS entomologist Kim Hoelmer, who started the olive fruit fly studies while at the Montpellier lab between 1999 and 2004. In lab tests, one parasitic wasp from southern Africa called Psyttalia lounsburyi appeared able to control populations efficiently and to attack only the olive fruit fly. It has recently been introduced in several areas in California and has brought down fly numbers by as much as 96%, says Kevin Hackett, national program leader for biological control at ARS headquarters in Beltsville, Maryland.

To fight invasive insects, Hoelmer says it's important to be able to study them over the long term in their native habitats--in the olive fruit fly's case, the Mediterranean region and Africa. That would be impractical for U.S.-based researchers. EBCL's predecessor opened in France a century ago to study the European corn borer, which had just crossed the Atlantic Ocean. The lab also serves as a base for expeditions to scout for insects' natural enemies.

Hoelmer says that he believes he could convince anybody, including Palin, that his work is worthwhile. But as a government researcher, he can't comment on political speeches. Zalom can. "This kind of stuff always drives me nuts," he says. "It's a total lack of understanding of the importance of research."

Posted in Plants & Animals, Policy, Environment