With an optimistic eye towards the coming spring, I thought it relevant to discuss one of springtime’s sweetest fruits: strawberries. Most Americans can enjoy the sweet, red berries year-round thanks to the advent of greenhouses. However, much more technology goes into producing the perfect strawberry than most consumers may realize.
Unbeknownst to most strawberry lovers, the University of California Davis (UC Davis), plays an integral role in producing the berries. UC Davis houses one of the largest (and most profitable) genetic breeding programs in the world. The University’s Strawberry Breeding Program originated in the 1930s and found its home at UC Davis in 1952. Since then, the program has patented 30 commercial strawberry varieties, all which produce larger, sweeter, and more disease-resistant strawberries. Such genetic improvements have resulted in 60 percent of the world’s strawberries originating from varieties developed at UC Davis. Such large outputs have in turn produced large returns for the University as well. In the last nine years, royalties from its strawberry varieties totaled $50 million.
With such a successful program, it is no surprise that when two of the program’s top researchers, Douglas Shaw and Kirk Larson, decided in 2012 to leave the University to form their own private plant breeding company (taking their “research” with them), the strawberry industry was less than supportive. As Dan Charles for NPR reported,
“UC Davis strawberry program, [is] an ungainly hybrid”
of plant breeding programs. There are public programs at universities and then there are private programs at companies like Monsanto; however, UC Davis doesn’t fit neatly into either category. Unlike most public breeding programs, UC Davis does not want other breeders in the world of academia to use their varieties for research. Moreover, unlike other university breeding programs, UC Davis’ focus, according to NPR, is on developing commercial varieties that can be patented and profited from, rather than advancing the field of genetic breeding. With that said, UC Davis is not wholly like private programs either. It differs from private programs by making their plant varieties available to strawberry growers for a reduced royalty price.
Thus, until Shaw and Larson’s resignation announcement, UC Davis and California strawberry growers were in harmony, with growers benefitting from quality plants at a low royalty price and the University receiving revenue in return. But, this harmony ended abruptly after UC Davis informed the California Strawberry Commission (CSC) that following Shaw and Larson’s resignation, the program would likely end. In turn, the CSC sued the University in 2013. Since the early 1990s the CSC has helped fund the breeding program in exchange for exclusive rights to any developed plant variety for two years, greatly benefitting California strawberry growers over out-of-state competitors. On this basis, the CSC’s complaint claimed UC Davis was in breach of its research agreement with CSC and that CSC had rights of access to copy the plant tissues or “germplasm” developed with the help of their funding. Additionally, the CSC accused the University of privatizing public research. In response to CSC’s complaint, UC Davis filed declaratory judgment cross-claims, alleging that if CSC were allowed access to copy the program’s germplasm, they would be infringing on several of the University’s patents. UC Davis cross-claim consequently allowed the case to be transferred to federal court under the authority of the America Invents Act, which allows a case to be transferred when either party asserts a claim for relief under the Act. After being reassigned to the U.S. District Court in Oakland, the case has remained in apparent stalemate until February 9, 2015, when the CSC and UC Davis agreed to settle. Key to the settlement is the University’s hiring of Steven Knapp to take over the breeding program. Knapp is the former Global Director for Monsanto’s Vegetable Research and Development program and former professor at Oregon State University and the University of Georgia. While it appears that all is forgiven in California’s so called strawberry war, it is unclear whether Knapp will be able to maintain UC Davis’ status as ancestor to 60 percent of the world’s strawberries. And so, the war may be over, but the question remains: what will become of spring’s most beloved fruit?