May 15, 2014
Commission files suit against University of California

In April, the University of California (UC), Davis, filed a motion with the Alameda County Superior Court asking that the lawsuit filed against it by the California Strawberry Commission be dismissed.

It’s the latest move in a legal dispute concerning the future of the university’s strawberry breeding program. The strawberry commission first filed a lawsuit last October, calling its action a “last resort to protect the public strawberry breeding program,” according to a statement.

According to the commission, the UC researchers overseeing the breeding program (Douglas Shaw and Kirk Larson) recently announced their decision to retire from the university. UC has indicated it will make an agreement with Shaw and Larson that will allow them to establish a private, proprietary breeding program. The commission claims that the creation of such a private breeding venture would leave UC’s public breeding program at a “distinct competitive disadvantage,” since it would redirect most of the public program’s expertise, facilities and genetic material – and any royalties gained from sales of future varieties developed from the UC germplasm – toward private profits.

Since UC’s breeding program was developed with the financial support of California’s strawberry farmers, the commission – which represents the farmers’ interests – seeks to prevent the university from denying it access to the results of that program (including the program’s strawberry germplasm and any varieties developed from it). It also seeks the creation of a “constructive trust” over the germplasm, as well as damages.

Commission officials have been meeting with university administrators for the last five years to discuss “ongoing concerns regarding the management, oversight and long-term viability of the public strawberry breeding program,” according to a commission statement. However, there has been “no meaningful movement regarding any of these issues.”

According to a UC statement, the commission is alleging that the university is not taking steps to continue its public breeding program, but that’s a misconception.

“We continue to be disappointed with the actions of the commission and its pursuit of a meritless lawsuit,” said UC Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi. “The strawberry breeding program at UC Davis is the pre-eminent public breeding program in the world today and the only public breeding program in the state. We are committed to maintaining that status for years to come.”

According to the university statement, UC Davis has two copies of its strawberry germplasm, which includes “patented varieties, advanced selection lines, breeding stock and historical plants.” One collection is being used by the breeders (Shaw and Larson), and the second is being maintained by UC’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. In addition, the university is recruiting more geneticists to join its breeding program.

“Despite the path the commission has chosen, UC Davis is committed to a long-term positive relationship for the benefit of California strawberry growers, and more generally for state agriculture and the public,” Katehi said. “We are hopeful the commission, too, is ready to move forward and continue the important collaboration we have enjoyed for decades.”

Matt Milkovich

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