May 5, 2016
Another lawsuit assails UC’s strawberry breeding program

California Berry Cultivars (CBC) filed a lawsuit May 2 against the Regents of the University of California (UC). The filing came “after more than three years of unsuccessful discussions and negotiations revolving around the systematic demise of the UC Davis strawberry breeding program,” according to a CBC press release.

The breeding company’s lawsuit lists claims against UC for “breach of contract, conversion, breach of fiduciary duty, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and unfair competition.” CBC is seeking “equitable and monetary relief for injuries that have been, and will continue to be, caused by UC’s incompetence and unlawful conduct.”

According to a UC Davis statement, the university is evaluating the legal claims raised in the lawsuit but intends to defend against it. Its strawberry breeding program continues to be “robust,” and “we remain committed to maintaining the program as a public breeding program, available to all in the California strawberry industry.”

According to CBC, its members “came together after it was apparent that UC Davis officials had orchestrated a collapse of protocols and precedents in what should have been a well-conceived strategy of succession for UC’s strawberry breeding program.”

A few years ago, Doug Shaw and Kirk Larson, UC’s long-time strawberry breeders, announced they would retire from the university to form a private breeding venture, which became CBC. They left UC in December 2014. The university hired Steven Knapp to replace them in early 2015.

But the university took no steps to replace Shaw and Larson until it was sued by the California Strawberry Commission in a previous legal dispute. Knapp wasn’t appointed until a settlement was reached between the two parties, said Lucky Westwood, operations manager for California Giant Berry Farms, a partner in CBC.

“They had three years after the announcement of retirement, but didn’t do anything,” Westwood said.

UC also laid off the breeding program’s staff in 2014, and CBC promptly hired them, he said.

CBC’s concerns culminated in April 2016, when plants from the UC program arrived at nurseries in “bad shape.” CBC members are extremely concerned about the viability of the plant material and the future of a world-class breeding program, Westwood said.

According to CBC, UC officials “have misled the industry and CBC members into believing that the core collection of strawberry breeding materials have been safeguarded and properly maintained. For over three years, CBC has worked to re-invigorate the stalled strawberry breeding program through efforts to obtain non-exclusive access to the core strawberry materials created by Shaw and Larson and now held by UC. The failure of UC Davis to establish a succession plan and the lack of continuity is creating hardships for all growers who depend on improved strawberry varieties for their livelihoods.”

In addition to Shaw and Larson, CBC’s partners include California Giant Berry Farms, principals at Orange County Produce, International Semillas, Rod Koda, Daren Gee and Lassen Canyon Nursery.

Westwood said the breeding program hasn’t made any new crosses since “about 2012.”

“The people there now have done some internal things, but they’re not creating any new material as far as we can tell,” he said. “They’ve departed from a program that’s carried on a certain way for 60 years, and was extremely successful.”

The genetic material the UC breeding program is working with today was developed by Shaw and Larson, and even though the CBC partners have an ownership interest in the material, UC has “stiff-armed” them, Westwood said.

“We’ve been asking for, and continue to only ask for, a non-exclusive license to use this material for breeding, but they’re not letting us work with it despite our ownership interest,” he said. “They deny we have standing to even talk to them.”

California’s – and the world’s – strawberry industry needs a steady flow of new varieties with improved size, firmness, transportability and other characteristics. UC’s breeding program provided that for decades, and it needs to continue, Westwood said.

“Across the board, plants are better than they used to be, and this program is the reason,” he said. “We need the pipeline to keep going. The world depends on California varieties.”

Turbulent transition

This isn’t the first lawsuit involving UC’s strawberry breeding program.

In October 2013, the California Strawberry Commission (CSC) filed a lawsuit against UC Davis. Concerned about the impending retirements of Shaw and Larson, the commission claimed that their leaving UC and creating a private breeding venture would leave the university’s program at a “distinct competitive disadvantage,” since it would redirect most of the public program’s expertise, facilities and genetic material toward private profits.

CSC, an agency of the state government that represents the research interests of California’s strawberry growers, sought to prevent the university from denying those growers access to the fruits of the breeding program (including strawberry germplasm and any varieties developed from it).

In April 2014, UC Davis filed a motion asking that the commission’s lawsuit be dismissed. The university claimed that the allegation that it was not taking steps to continue its public breeding program was a misconception, and filed a countersuit in October 2014. The two parties settled the dispute in early 2015. UC Davis announced the hiring of Knapp, the new breeder, at the same time.

“The hiring of the new plant breeder and the commitment to continue the public program were critical to resolving the dispute,” Rick Tomlinson, CSC’s president, said at the time.

Industry divide?

Since the 2015 agreement was signed, the university has made good progress on restoring its strawberry breeding program, according to Carolyn O’Donnell, CSC’s communications director.

According to UC Davis, the breeding program has been very active lately, launching a large-scale genetic disease resistance experiment, adding students and staff to its research team and planting yield trials on five farms from Ventura to Watsonville.

“It’s a privilege to participate in the novel research they’re doing at UC Davis,” said Tom AmRhein, a CSC member and producer with Naturipe Berry Growers near Castroville, site of one of the yield trials. “Growers are happy about the new focus and positive energy the team is bringing to the program. And because everything they develop is available to all strawberry growers, it protects the viability and sustainability of the whole industry.”

The program is collecting strawberry species from the wild and germplasm from USDA, and storing it in its collection of material, which includes some 1,700 cultivars. Of those cultivars, 180 are considered elite and most likely to develop into a winning variety, according to UC Davis.

“Because all the data and material they develop is public, it will be available to any grower, which is so crucial in today’s competitive marketplace,” said Dan Legard, CSC’s vice president of research and education.

Westwood said there are about 400 strawberry growers in California, and it’s hard to pin down the industry’s take on the current direction of the UC breeding program. Grower opinions are probably mixed.

CBC’s partners, however, account for nearly one-fifth of the state’s strawberry acres, and they don’t think the public breeding program is headed in the right direction, Westwood said.

Matt Milkovich


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