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Sweet victory: UC Davis wins big-money strawberry fight

Strawberry plants grown in this UC Davis greenhouse are at the center of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco. A jury sided with the university in a case brought by two of its former plant breeders, who have been seeking the right to breed the plants at their private company.
Strawberry plants grown in this UC Davis greenhouse are at the center of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco. A jury sided with the university in a case brought by two of its former plant breeders, who have been seeking the right to breed the plants at their private company. Sacramento Bee file

An epic battle over the right to breed sweeter and juicier strawberries is over, and UC Davis has won.

A jury Wednesday ruled against two former UC Davis scientists who sued the university over control of a priceless collection of strawberry-breeding plants they’d developed over more than two decades. Capping five days of testimony, the jury found that the two scientists had violated their agreements with UC Davis by using the breeding plants without the university’s permission.

UC Davis hailed the verdict as a victory for its plant-breeding program, and the scores of farmers in California and elsewhere that rely on the university’s know-how.

The berries developed in UC Davis’ greenhouses generate roughly half of California’s $2 billion-a-year strawberry crop, and have produced tens of millions of dollars in royalty payments for the university over the years. UC Davis considers itself the breeder of choice for the mom and pop farmers of California, offering its technology at a discount.

“This federal jury decision is good news for public strawberry breeding at UC Davis and all strawberry farmers throughout California and the world,” said Helene Dillard, dean of UC Davis’ College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, in a prepared statement.

The strawberry custody fight revolves around Douglas Shaw and Kirk Lawson, who were stars of UC Davis’ plant-breeding system. Over two decades, they developed a host of plumper and sweeter strawberries and helped solidify California as the world leader in strawberry production.

Relations with the university soured, though, and they quit in 2014 to form their own company, California Berry Cultivars, in Orange County. The company is run by a former secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, A.G. Kawamura.

After leaving the university, Shaw and Larson tried to obtain a license to use the breeding plants. The university refused. That led to lawsuits, with Shaw and Larson demanding $45 million in damages and accusing UC Davis of stifling innovation.

For its part, UC Davis accused its former employees of violating their “duties of loyalty” to the university by taking some of the UC Davis plants to Spain, cross-breeding them, and bringing the offspring back to California for commercial use, according to university lawyer Jacob Appelsmith.

The case isn’t quite over. Even though the jury ruled in the university’s favor, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria still could order UC Davis to grant the two scientists a license to use the plants at the university’s greenhouse. In his post-verdict comments, the judge scolded both sides and said UC Davis was just as guilty of “bad conduct” as its former employees.

Kawamura said California Berry hopes it can somehow secure a license to work with the UC Davis breeding plants.

“We still believe that a collaborative effort can move all parties forward,” Kawamura said in an interview after the verdict.

But Appelsmith said the university doesn’t want to do business with Shaw and Larson.

“They have stolen from us and have lied to us,” he said.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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