OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — The world-renowned University of California-Davis’ agricultural sciences department has brought California billions of dollars over the years, but a lawsuit involving two of its most renowned scientists questions the school’s commitment to its future.
California is an agricultural giant, producing $54 billion worth of farm products in 2014, growing more than one-third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts. California farmers and orchardists grow more than 400 food crops and UC Davis has played a role in developing just about all of them.
California strawberries bring in $2.5 billion a year the state’s fifth most-valuable crop. UC Davis has developed 56 varieties since 1945, creating strains that are bigger, taste better, stay fresh longer and yield six times more per acre. More than 80 percent of the strawberries grown in North America and more than 60 percent worldwide are UC Davis varietals.
“Since the 1940s, they have developed a string of very successful strawberry varieties, developed for California growers, but sold worldwide,” said Carolyn O’Donnell, a spokeswoman for the California Strawberry Commission.
“The reason it is so important is that it’s a public program, and the varietals are available to anyone. Strawberries are a unique crop — a crop of opportunity. You can grow a lot of fruit on a small amount of land. It’s an ideal crop for immigrants to get their start in farming. Probably 25 percent of growers in California started out as farmworkers.”
Douglas Shaw and Kirk Larson ran the UC Davis strawberry program for 22 years until they retired in 2014, and formed California Berry Cultivars.
On Monday, their company sued the Regents of the University of California, for access to their decades of work. The five-count complaint essentially accuses UC Davis of neglecting the program, which they say is vital to California’s strawberry industry.
Shaw and Larson — who are not plaintiffs as individuals — developed more than a dozen strawberry cultivars at UC Davis that are being grown throughout the world. In 2004, they released the Albion varietal, known for its outstanding flavor and high productivity. It can be grown as many as nine months of the year and is the most widely planted strawberry in California today.
“Berries had gotten big, but lost their flavor. So they made a conscious decision to rebreed for taste,” said A.G. Kawamura, a former California Secretary of Agriculture and the owner of Orange County Produce. “They have allowed those of us that grow strawberries to stay in business.”
Kawamura is also president of California Berry Cultivars, which he describes as a consortium of growers and packers. The company, with Shaw and Larson leading the way, expected to continue developing the UC Davis varieties using the same germplasm — stock strains of valuable genes — but UC Davis denied the company access.
So California Berry Cultivars sued the trustees in Alameda County Court, alleging breach of contract, conversion, breach of faith, breach of fiduciary duty and unfair competition.
Kawamura, who has grown strawberries all his life, said the company sued due to frustration with the UC Davis program and fear that the school won’t be able to replicate its past decades of success, and isn’t even going to try.
Kawamura said the university’s waning interest in the program was apparent even before Shaw and Larson retired.
“We’ve always been dependent on the university’s program and have a history of working with them,” Kawamura said. “The members of our CBC group basically came together when we started to see an effort to shut down the program. We are not quite sure what the driver was, but there’s been a serious pull of support for the breeding program at UC Davis, at a time when we all saw that we needed new and different varieties due to disease and weather changes.”
The CBC wants access to Shaw’s and Larson’s work, and says it is entitled to it through contracts with UC Davis. The company wants to license, “on a non-exclusive basis at a reasonable royalty, some of the strawberry varieties the breeders invented,” the complaint states.
California Berry Cultivars claims UC Davis has broken agreements, denied rights and risked loss of the varietals, all in an attempt to suppress competition.
“We’re not even asking for exclusive access. Just let the breeders develop those varieties they had been working with all those years,” Kawamura said. “The breeders would get royalties; the university would get royalties.”
Last year the California Strawberry Commission sued UC Davis, fearing the school had decided to wind down its breeding program.
The commission had given the school millions of dollars over the years to facilitate research, to which it did not want to lose access. That lawsuit was settled in February, with UC Davis hiring a new scientist, Steven Knapp, to lead the breeding program, and promising to continue to release new strains of strawberries.
O’Donnell said the Strawberry Commission is pleased with the settlement and that the university appears to be making progress again. Many growers are fairly satisfied as well.
“The program is enormously important to the industry,” said Tom AmRhein, a Watsonville strawberry grower and the research committee chairman of the Strawberry Commission. “I personally feel like things are moving ahead in a positive direction.”
Kawamura said time is the driving force behind the CBC lawsuit. With each passing year, the germplasm grow more out of date and the industry loses a chance to bring in new varieties. He said he has heard it may take the program another four to six years before it begins creating new strains.
“It will be seven to 10 years before we get anything out of a program that year after year had improved varietals to keep up with changing growing conditions,” Kawamura said. “We’ve already missed three years of plantings and crossings and research that should have been done.”
Kawamura said the CBC also fears that the UC Davis collection of heirloom and experimental varieties may be withering away. Many common berry varieties are patented by the university. For instance, the Seascape varietal, often found in Farmers Markets due to its size, attractiveness and natural pest resistance, was developed by UC Davis in the 1980s.
“We have had no access to see what is going on with those plants and if they are engaged in the stewardship they are contracted to do,” he said. “If they are doing things intentionally or unintentionally that jeopardize those plants, that’s an outrage. We hear some of these plants are being mistreated. We just want to ask why? What is behind the demise of this premier program? We want to see that this collection is sound. And every year it has less value. It degrades. We are kind of in dismay.”
Kawamura said some nurseries have recently received plants from UC Davis that “looked dead” because the plants were not stored or handled correctly.
“Everybody is a loser if we lose these plants,” Kawamura said. “I’m such a believer in how important the land grant system and cooperative extensions are — where everybody has access to the information. But my feeling is that they have absolutely moved away from that mission. This is one of the best examples of the public-private partnership that agriculture has ever seen and it has been dismantled over the past five to six years.”
Representatives from UC Davis would not answer questions directly, but offered a prepared statement.
“While we are still evaluating the legal claims raised in the lawsuit, we intend to defend against it,” wrote Dana Topousis, interim strategic communications lead and executive director of news and media relations. “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.”
California Berry Cultivars is being represented by Rick Knight with Jones Day in Los Angeles, who did not return a phone call seeking comment.
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