UC, strawberry growers settle legal fight over research

The University of California and strawberry growers settle a legal fight over research of new varieties

The University of California and the state's strawberry growers have reached a settlement in their legal fight over research that breeds new and valuable varieties of the fruit. Their lawsuits had attracted national attention about academia's important role in agribusiness and raised concerns about the state's $2.6-billion annual strawberry crop —— which dominates the national market.

Under the settlement, UC Davis will continue its public research program in strawberry cultivation for at least five more years and is hiring a new master grower to develop hardier and tastier varieties at UC greenhouses and fields in Davis, Watsonville and Irvine.

The recent departure of the longtime breeder had raised industry fears that those facilities and the prized inventory of 1,600 strawberry types would be abandoned or turned over to a private firm the former UC grower wanted to start.

In addition, the agreement says that UC will maintain wide public licensing of the strawberry varieties its specialists develop rather than favoring a small group of commercial growers. And the settlement reinforces UC's position that the university system controls the fruit types it breeds and the more than $7 million a year in licensing fees the patents generate. The growers' organization had tried to assert some claims because of its past subsidies to UC research.

"The farmers are happy we will continue to have a public program," said Carolyn O'Donnell, spokeswoman for the California Strawberry Commission.

That Watsonville organization of growers and packers had sued UC, saying it was privatizing the research. It also alleged UC was not properly safeguarding the so-called germplasm, a living museum of strawberry types sustained since the 1930s with careful reproduction, plantings and refrigeration at UC farm properties.

UC denied those allegations and said it always intended to keep the program and protect the inventory. UC countersued the growers and wanted a clear statement of UC's authority over such popular strawberry varieties named Albion, Beniciaand San Andreas. Strawberries are among the UC system's most profitable inventions, on a top-earnings list alongside medical advances. .

Jacob Appelsmith, UC Davis' chief counsel, said UC officials were pleased the dispute is over.

"Instead of the first question being about the lawsuit, people can start talking again about trying to breed varieties for California growers that are going to help California agriculture," he said.

Signaling its commitment, UC Davis announced that its new chief strawberry breeder will be Steven J. Knapp, a plant scientist who taught at Oregon State and the University of Georgia and was global director of vegetable breeding at Monsanto Co.

California produces 90% of the nation's strawberries, and more than half of that is in patented varieties developed at UC.

For many years, the growers group helped fund UC research with $350,000 annual grants. Strawberry nurseries throughout the state got discounts on the royalties they paid to grow and sell the UC varieties. The growers' lawsuit alleged that the end of both arrangements three years ago was a breach of contract.

Both sides Tuesday said it was not decided whether growers again will help fund UC research. The settlement calls for the establishment of an advisory group of growers, university experts and others to review the breeding program and licensing policies.

The dispute was set into motion when UC's chief strawberry breeder, Douglas Shaw, after nearly three decades at the university, announced that he and a research partner planned to leave UC and start a private company for strawberry crop development. Shaw could not be reached for comment.

larry.gordon@latimes.com

Twitter: @larrygordonlat

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