Senator Paul- Make Tomatoes Great Again

I applaud Senator Rand Paul’s interest in controlling government waste. Some politicians view taxpayer coffers as a bottomless checkbook. It is always refreshing to see critical evaluation of the dollars spent by the government.

However, Senator Paul just placed his waste sticker on a gem of a project. He literally trashed a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded project that is rapidly resolving the genes associated with tomato metabolites as “one of the egregious examples of waste in the U.S. government.” In short, he took barely-surfacy-cursory glimpse at NSF’s carefully-refereed investment and unilaterally decided it was a frivolous waste of taxpayer funds.

He then fabricated a sadly snarky response, ignoring science and evidence for a quick political dig. He saw a few buzzwords that he could toss into the science-funding fray, and score a few points as a hero on waste patrol.

But is he a budget hero if the work he calls a waste actually is an amazing investment?

Breakthroughs in connecting genes to traits they control make better products for consumers, but also place a wealth of freel
Breakthroughs in connecting genes to traits they control make better products for consumers, but also place a wealth of freely available information into the public domain to understand how biology works.

The Tomato Project

The funding was a $1.5 million grant to Dr. Harry Klee and his collaborators at the University of Florida/IFAS. The work is the ongoing characterization of the metabolic landscape of tomato fruits. The work has contributed to a pipeline of new varieties, as well as a deeper understanding of the chemical nuts-and-bolts of one of the world’s most valued produce products.

Tomato fruits are an excellent system to study metabolic questions. Many other less-lab-friendly fruits share similar pathways, so they are a starting point to understanding many other crops. Tomatoes also have substantial economic value, so the chemistries that control their breakdown after harvest, their flavors and aromas, their nutrient content, and their overall quality are of great interest and translate into millions of dollars for farmers.

Klee’s group used the power of genomics, analyzing the DNA sequences of many kinds of tomatoes— from wild, to cultivated, to heirloom. They compared DNA data to consumer preferences, and through incredible statistical machinations identified the genes that control traits important for farmers, consumers and the environment.

Results Hit Home, and the Farm

And research like Klee’s matters because it impacts everyone from the scientist, to the farmer, to the consumer.

· Tomato farmers perennially battle low prices, caused in part from a flood of fruit coming from other countries. Klee’s work will help American farmers produce a higher-quality fruit that consumers may demand because of superior flavor and performance.

· Understanding the chemistry and genetics of tomatoes may help researchers understand how to make them last longer once picked, or be able to better survive the shipping process. That limits food waste, meaning larger profits for farmers and more efficient use of water and fertilizers.

· Better tasting tomatoes spur more consumption, and a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables has been shown to be associated with long-term health. At a time of escalating health care costs, something as simple as a tastier tomato may translate into massive government savings. One chronic illness can easily cost the same as this entire grant.

· The results also contribute to the depth of knowledge on how plants work— how do genes connect to traits?

Big Dividends, Blind Politicians

For the cost of a single Tomahawk missile, leading public university scientists trained students, developed careers of postdoctoral scientists, and produced mountains of new information in the public domain that can help us better understand any fruit or vegetable. Specific to tomatoes, the information can be used to improve a nutritious agricultural product that we all agree needs improvement. That’s not “one of the most egregious examples of (government) waste”— that’s an incredible value.

This is exactly where I want my taxpayer dollars invested.

And this is the point. In times when budgets are being eyeballed by politicians, important science is prone to being undervalued, if not outright disparaged, and possibly cut completely. Such pointy criticism fosters the popular Washington perception of budget hawkiness, allowing a politician to appear that he/she is doing the fiscally-responsible thing.

But they attack before they understand. When they trash the work of scientists they potentially sour the environment of investment in science. It erodes trust in our scientific institutions. Worse, it taints public opinion and willingness to invest in science. Worse-worse, baseless condemnation of a public investment compels his congressional colleagues to take a whack at chopping already woefully low science budgets.

Opinion Harms National Science Progress

Everyone agrees that science is a substantial economic driver, and that new innovation is necessary for sustained national prominence and security.

So while trying to appear responsible, Senator Paul irresponsibly knocks good science backwards. I would have been happy to take his phone call and explain the great value of this important work. I also would have sent him some seeds from some of Klee’s amazing new tomato varieties.

While politicians come and go, investment in public science will continue to pay dividends forever. Work like Klee’s trains the future science workforce, informs the genetics of future fruits and vegetables, and ensures profitable farming and healthy diets today.

That’s not egregious waste—that’s a brilliant investment.

Kevin Folta (@kevinfolta) is a Professor and Chair of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. A complete listing of all of his research sponsorship and reimbursements is provided here for full transparency.

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