Business & Real Estate

Strawberry fight reignites as former UC Davis scientists sue over lucrative breeding technology

Mary Delany, associate dean in UC Davis College of Agriculture, right, and Garry Pearson, principal superintendent, examine strawberry plants at university’s greenhouse in 2014.
Mary Delany, associate dean in UC Davis College of Agriculture, right, and Garry Pearson, principal superintendent, examine strawberry plants at university’s greenhouse in 2014. Sacramento Bee file

UC Davis’ multimillion-dollar strawberry-breeding program is under legal attack again, this time from a pair of former UCD scientists who have gone into competition against the university.

California Berry Cultivars LLC, a company set up by two former Davis strawberry scientists, sued the University of California regents this week, saying they’ve been denied access to the fruits of their own labor – namely, a selection of plants they developed during their decades working at Davis.

The two scientists, Douglas Shaw and Kirk Larson, left UC Davis in 2014 to start California Berry with A.G. Kawamura, a former California secretary of food and agriculture.

While we are still evaluating the legal claims raised in the lawsuit, we intend to defend against it

UC Davis, in a prepared statement

Shaw and Larson’s departure already triggered one massive lawsuit, when the California Strawberry Commission accused the university of abandoning the strawberry-breeding program and letting the two men walk out the door with the priceless strawberry plants. That suit was settled in early 2015, when UC Davis hired a new strawberry breeder and reaffirmed its commitment to the industry.

The new case could have major impacts on California’s strawberry farmers.

UC Davis’ breeding program has been crucial to the industry and a big money-maker for the university. Between 2005 and 2014, strawberry nurseries around the world paid UC Davis royalties totaling $50 million. In return, nurseries and their customers – the farmers – have been able to deliver huge improvements in taste and durability developed by the Davis scientists. The two scientists themselves have earned several million dollars, their share of the university’s royalty income.

Strawberry varieties developed at UC Davis account for about half of California’s $2.6 billion-a-year crop. Some of the top names in the business, including Dole and California Giant, rely on UC Davis’ technology.

In its suit, filed in Alameda Superior Court, the new company said Shaw and Larson are entitled to license the plant varieties being housed at UC Davis. The suit says the university has refused to release the plants “in an apparent attempt to suppress competition.” In addition, the company said the university’s breeding program “has wound down” since Shaw and Larson left campus.

UC Davis, in a prepared statement, denied that it has let the breeding program fade since Shaw and Larson’s departure.

“While we are still evaluating the legal claims raised in the lawsuit, we intend to defend against it,” the university said. “The University of California strawberry breeding program is a robust one, and we remain committed to maintaining the program as a public breeding program, available to all in the California strawberry industry.”

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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