The UC Davis plant-breeding program has been integral to California’s agricultural dominance for the past 100 years, but a lawsuit involving two of its most renowned scientists questions the school’s commitment to its future.
California is an agricultural giant, producing $54 billion worth of farm products in 2014, and responsible for growing more than a third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts. The state grows more than 400 commodities and UC Davis has played a major role in developing just about all of them.
One of the biggest success stories is strawberries. According to UC Davis, the school has developed 56 varieties since 1945, creating strains that are bigger, taste better, stay fresh longer and have about six times more yield per acre when planted. More than 80 percent of the strawberries grown in North America and more than 60 percent worldwide are UC Davis varietals — and the industry is centered here in the Monterey Bay.
“Since the 1940s, they have developed a string of very successful strawberry varieties, developed for California growers, but sold worldwide,” said Carolyn O’Donnell, communications manager for the California Strawberry Commission. “The reason it is so important is that it’s a public program and the varietals are available to anyone. Strawberries are a unique crop — a crop of opportunity. You can grow a lot of fruit on a small amount of land. It’s an ideal crop for immigrants to get their start in farming. Probably 25 percent of growers in California started out as farmworkers.”
In 2014 Douglas Shaw and Kirk Larson, the two men who had ran the UC Davis strawberry program for the past 22 years, retired and formed California Berry Cultivars. Now, their company is suing the university for access to their decades of work, and accuses UC Davis of neglecting the program, which many see as vital to California’s strawberry industry.
Shaw and Larson had been incredibly successful during their tenure at UC Davis, with more than a dozen of their cultivars currently being used throughout the world. In 2004, they released the Albion varietal, known for its outstanding flavor and high productivity. It is grown in places like Watsonville nine months out of the year and is the most widely planted in California today.
“Berries had gotten big, but lost their flavor. So they made a conscious decision to rebreed for taste,” said A.G. Kawamura, former California Secretary of Agriculture and owner of Orange County Produce. “They have allowed those of us that grow strawberries to stay in business.”
Kawamura is also president of California Berry Cultivars, which he describes as a consortium of growers and packers. The company, with Shaw and Larson leading the way, expected to continue developing the UC Davis varieties using the same germplasm — stock strains of valuable genes — but was denied access by UC Davis. CBC filed suit, claiming breach of contract, conversion, breach of fiduciary duty and unfair competition.
Kawamura has been a strawberry grower all of his life and said the suit is due to frustration with the UC Davis program and a fear the school won’t be able to replicate its success for the past 50 years, and isn’t even really going to try. He said the university’s waning interest in the program was apparent even before Shaw and Larson retired.
“We’ve always been dependent on the university’s program and have a history of working with them,” Kawamura said. “The members of our CBC group basically came together when we started to see an effort to shut down the program. We are not quite sure what the driver was, but there’s been a serious pull of support for the breeding program at UC Davis — at a time when we all saw that we needed new and different varieties due to disease and weather changes.”
CBC now just wants access, which Shaw and Larson are entitled to by their contracts with UC Davis, according to CBC’s complaint, filed on May 2 in Alameda County Superior Court. It states that the company wants to license, “on a non-exclusive basis at a reasonable royalty, some the strawberry varieties the breeders invented.” Instead, UC Davis has broken agreements, denied rights and risked the loss of the varieties, all in an attempt to suppress competition.
“We’re not even asking for exclusive access. Just let the breeders develop those varieties they had been working with all those years,” Kawamura said. “The breeders would get royalties, the university would get royalties.”
Last year, it was the California Strawberry Commission that sued UC Davis, fearing that the school had decided to wind down its breeding program. The commission had given the school millions of dollars over the years to facilitate research that it didn’t want to lose access to. That suit was settled in February, with UC Davis hiring a new scientist, Steven Knapp, to lead the breeding program, and promising to continue to release new strains of strawberries.
O’Donnell said the Strawberry Commission is pleased with the settlement and that the university appears to be making progress again. Many growers are fairly satisfied as well.
“The program is enormously important to the industry,” said Tom AmRhein, a Watsonville strawberry grower and the research committee chairman of the Strawberry Commission. “I personally feel like things are moving ahead in a positive direction.”
Kawamura said time is the driving force behind the CBC’s lawsuit. As each year goes by, the germplasm grow more out of date and the industry loses a chance to bring in new varieties of berries. He claims that Knapp has even admitted that it will take him four to six years of study before he is ready to begin creating new strains. Meanwhile, the program sits idle.
“It will be seven to 10 years before we get anything out of a program that, year after year, had improved varietals to keep up with changing growing conditions,” Kawamura said. “We’ve already missed three years of plantings and crossings and research that should have been done.”
Furthermore, Kawamura and the CBC fear that the UC Davis collection of heirloom and experimental varieties may be withering away. Many of the most common berry varieties are patented by the university. For instance, the Seascape varietal, which is often found in Farmers Markets due to its size, attractiveness and natural pest resistance, was developed by UC Davis in the 1980s.
“We have had no access to see what is going on with those plants and if they are engaged in the stewardship they are contracted to do,” he said. “If they are doing things intentionally or unintentionally that jeopardize those plants — that’s an outrage. We hear some of these plants are being mistreated. We just want to ask ‘Why? What is behind the demise of this premier program?’ We want to see that this collection is sound. And every year, it has less value. It degrades. We are kind of in dismay.”
As evidence, Kawamura says he knows of nurseries that have recently received plants from UC Davis that “looked dead” because the plants were not stored or handled correctly.
“Everybody is a loser if we lose these plants,” Kawamura said. “I’m such a believer in how important the land grant system and cooperative extensions are — where everybody has access to the information. But my feeling is that they have absolutely moved away from that mission. This is one of the best examples of the public-private partnership that agriculture has ever seen and it has been dismantled over the past five to six years.”
Representatives from UC Davis would not answer questions directly, but offered a prepared statement.
“While we are still evaluating the legal claims raised in the lawsuit, we intend to defend against it,” wrote Dana Topousis, interim strategic communications lead and executive director of news and media relations. “The University of California strawberry breeding program is a robust one, and we remain committed to maintaining the program as a public breeding program, available to all in the California strawberry industry.”
California Berry Cultivars is being represented by Rick Knight of Jones Day in Los Angeles. He did not return a phone call seeking comment.