Business & Real Estate

UC Davis fires back in strawberry controversy, sues growers’ group

The UC Davis greenhouse holds 1,500 strawberry plants grown from the 1930s through today. For decades, UC Davis has been the center of the strawberry world, home to a world-renowned plant-breeding program that has spun out countless varieties of berries. The university says 87 percent of all strawberries grown in North America come from varieties developed in Davis’ labs. Now the campus is at the heart of a complicated tug of war between the university, its two star plant breeders and the strawberry industry itself. The conflict is being played out in the courts and in the Legislature and raises questions about the relationship between a public university and private industry.
The UC Davis greenhouse holds 1,500 strawberry plants grown from the 1930s through today. For decades, UC Davis has been the center of the strawberry world, home to a world-renowned plant-breeding program that has spun out countless varieties of berries. The university says 87 percent of all strawberries grown in North America come from varieties developed in Davis’ labs. Now the campus is at the heart of a complicated tug of war between the university, its two star plant breeders and the strawberry industry itself. The conflict is being played out in the courts and in the Legislature and raises questions about the relationship between a public university and private industry. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

The legal fight between UC Davis and the California strawberry industry is escalating, even as both sides insist they want to patch up an 80-year-old relationship that’s enriched the university and given farmers a bounty of new strawberry varieties.

The University of California sued the California Strawberry Commission this week, firing back against a farmer-controlled organization that sued UC a little more than a year ago.

Both lawsuits revolve around the future of UC Davis’ plant-breeding program, which has churned out new kinds of strawberries for nurseries and farmers since the 1930s. In return, the industry has paid the university tens of millions of dollars in royalties and research grants.

The relationship turned testy in 2012. The two lead strawberry breeders at UC Davis announced they were leaving the university to form their own plant-breeding company. The Strawberry Commission, which has been helping fund research at Davis for decades, then sued the university. The suit accuses UC Davis of abandoning the program and letting the departing scientists “privatize” their research; it also demands the university turn over a prized collection of 1,500 strawberry plants used in breeding.

University officials have said the breeding program will continue with new scientists, and have denied that the departing breeders are being allowed to take their research with them. They also have refused to give the Strawberry Commission the 1,500 strawberry plants, known collectively as the “germplasm.”

UC’s lawsuit seeks a ruling declaring that the university is the sole owner of the germplasm and that the Strawberry Commission isn’t entitled to a copy. The university is also seeking a declaration that it alone controls patents on nine strawberry varieties developed over the years by the two departing scientists.

The Strawberry Commission had been sending UC Davis annual research grants of $350,000 until last year, after scientists Douglas Shaw and Kirk Larson announced they’d be leaving. Since the commission filed its suit, the strawberry growers and UC Davis have been saying they’d like to settle the case and resume doing business with one another.

With the new countersuit by UC, however, a peaceful resolution seems increasingly remote. The university said it had little choice but to take action.

“We have tried many times to engage the commission in a meaningful way, and in fact over the past year have made proposals that essentially met all of their demands for creating a structure to improve the interaction between the commission and the strawberry program,” said Jacob Appelsmith, UC Davis campus counsel, in an email Friday. “The commission has refused to reciprocate in seeking in good faith a settlement, and in fact … falsely claimed that the university walked away from the table.”

“We remain at the table and continue to invite the commission to join us in a good faith process,” he added.

In a prepared statement, the Strawberry Commission said: “We are disappointed that UC Davis has decided to sue farmers. The university can resolve the issue by simply agreeing in writing to restore the public breeding program that California strawberry farmers have funded since the 1950s.

“The commission requested additional settlement discussions after the court ruling but were told the university is not available until next year,” the commission added. An Alameda Superior Court judge refused UC’s request in early October to dismiss the Strawberry Commission’s complaint.

Plenty is at stake in the fight. Plant varieties developed by UC Davis have produced major breakthroughs in flavor, durability and other qualities over the years, and now account for about half the state’s $2 billion-a-year strawberry crop. Some of the best-known brands use the Davis varieties, including Dole and California Giant.

Shaw and Larson, who are expected to leave UC Davis later this year, aren’t defendants in either suit.

Meanwhile, UC lawyers also filed papers this week to have the case transferred to U.S. District Court in San Francisco from Alameda Superior Court. The university said federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over patent-related cases.

Call The Bee’s Dale Kasler, (916) 321-1066. Follow him on Twitter @dakasler.

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