Business & Real Estate

Judge won’t toss suit by strawberry industry against UC Davis over plant research

Lawyers for the University of California were unable Thursday to derail a lawsuit accusing UC Davis of scuttling a lucrative, decades-old agreement to breed new varieties of fruit for California’s strawberry growers.

The ruling by Alameda Superior Court Judge George Hernandez Jr. means the lawsuit filed by the California Strawberry Commission remains intact. Hernandez, following a 15-minute hearing, reaffirmed a tentative ruling he issued the day before.

The commission’s lawsuit accuses UC Davis of scrapping a research relationship that has spawned more than a dozen varieties of strawberries consumed around the world. The Davis-bred varieties are sold by top brands such as Dole and California Giant and account for about half the strawberries grown in the state.

The arrangement has been profitable for UC Davis, and emblematic of its status as one of the world’s leading agricultural universities. It has collected $350,000 a year in research funding from the grower-controlled Strawberry Commission and millions in royalties from nurseries around the world – some $50 million in the past nine years alone.

The dispute was sparked by the resignation of two star plant breeders, Douglas Shaw and Kirk Larson, who are expected to leave UC Davis in December to form their own company.

The commission says UC Davis is letting Shaw and Larson “privatize” what has been a research program funded for years by the strawberry growers. It says putting the university’s research in private hands would be devastating to much of the state’s $2 billion-a-year strawberry industry.

Although the university stopped taking the Strawberry Commission’s research grants after 2012, the school says the commission has simply got it wrong: Shaw and Larson will be replaced when they leave, and the breeding program will continue.

The university also denied the commission’s claim that the two scientists are being allowed to take with them a valuable collection of 1,500 strawberry plants, called the germplasm, which form the basis of the breeding program.

Shaw and Larson, who themselves have collected millions of dollars as their share of the university’s royalties, aren’t named as defendants in the case.

The dispute goes beyond Shaw and Larson’s departure. The commission says its contract gives it the right to a copy of the germplasm. UC Davis has refused to give the commission the plants, either.

“It’s plain from the contracts; they give (the growers) no right to the germplasm,” said Matthew Chivvis, attorney for the university.

The associate dean of UC Davis’ College of Agricultural and Environmental Science, Mary Delany, referred to the germplasm as untouchable “crown jewels.”

But the judge ruled that the interpretation of the contracts is something to be decided at trial.

Thursday’s court ruling validates the concerns raised by the commission,” said commission President Rick Tomlinson. “We hope that UC Davis will come back to the table and agree to a settlement that restores the partnership with California’s strawberry farmers.”

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