UC Regents Hoarding Strawberries, Group Says

     OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – The California Strawberry Commission claims in court that the University of California refuses to turn over new strawberry varieties the group funded through a 30-year study.
     The Commission sued the UC Board of Regents in Alameda County court, claiming that the university system “seeks to appropriate for itself and a private entity, to the exclusion of the commission, the fruits (both literally and figuratively) of decades-long research that the commission funded for its benefit.” (Parentheses in original.)
     Headquartered in Watsonville, Calif., the commission is an agency within the California Department of Food and Agriculture that exists to “promote California strawberries and manage industry issues, with a focus on production and nutrition research, trade relations, public policy, marking and communication,” according to the group.
     The commission says it has spent “millions of dollars” over the past 30 years funding a pomology program – the scientific term for strawberry breeding – at UC Davis, with plans to develop new varieties of the berry.
     It says it began funding the program in 1980 in exchange for access to the germplasm -living genetic tissue that can be modified to grow new types of plants – as well as data from the research and access to the strawberries developed and grown from the germplasm.
     Between 1980 and 2012, the university submitted research plans to the commission and asked for a “specific amount of money from the commission to fund the pomology program,” the complaint states.
     Also during this time, the commission and the university entered into an agreement that stated the ultimate goal was to develop new kinds of strawberries and improve the germplasm from which strawberries can be grown. The agreement also established how much money the commission would give UC Davis to fund the program, and provided that the directors would keep all new strawberry specimens for inspection by the commission.
     Things apparently ran smoothly during the 32 years that researchers Doug Shaw and Kirk Larson ran the pomology program at UC Davis. But in 2012, the two men announced plans to both resign from the program and to take the strawberry germplasm to start their own private research and breeding company, according to the commission.
     Shaw and Larson are not parties to the complaint.
     “The majority of the commission’s growers will not obtain the new strawberry varieties that Shaw and Larson will develop from the germplasm because Shaw and Larson intend to exclusively distribute the new strawberry varieties to select growers,” the group states in the complaint.
     After Shaw and Larson announced their retirement, UC Davis told the commission it would “terminate the pomology program such that the university will no longer develop and sell new strawberry varieties to the commission’s growers” and would instead “license the results of the pomology program to Shaw and Larson and/or their private company,” according to the commission.
     The complaint continues: “Although the commission funded the pomology program and the development of the germplasm for over 30 years so that the commission’s growers can obtain new strawberry varieties, the university and Shaw and Larson thus intend to appropriate for themselves all the benefits resulting from the pomology program. The university and Shaw and Larson, if permitted to carry out their plan, will themselves continue to economically benefit from the results of the pomology program that the commission funded, while the commission’s growers will be left with nothing.
     “Additionally, the university’s conduct jeopardizes the integrity of the germplasm, including the living plants from which new varieties are grown, which need constant maintenance and care,” the commission adds. “The university has failed to give the commission reasonable assurance that such maintenance and care will be provided when it terminates its pomology program.”
     The commission seeks an injunction against the UC system that would halt the licensing of germplasm developed by the program to Shaw, Larson and their new company, and a court order granting access to the program’s research data, germplasm and the new strawberries. The group also seeks damages for breach of contract and implied contract.
     The UC Board of Regents did not return requests for comment.
     Michael Adams, of the firm Rutan & Tucker in Costa Mesa, Calif, represents the commission in the action.

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