If you imagined that the world of strawberry breeding must be a tranquil, placid backwater, as sleepy as the Shire at midsummer, think again. It’s more like Westeros on a bad day. A news article on UC Davis’ website sets out the casus belli. Here are the main points. Imagine a deeply sonorous baritone reciting them in voice over, or maybe an opening crawl, like at the start of Star Wars. “UC Davis’ successes in strawberry research are legendary.”1 In large part, this is due to their breeding program. There is in California a body called the Strawberry Commission. It’s a growers’ association which funds research, including the UC Davis breeding programme, from a levy. They have come to think that UC Davis wants to shut down the breeding programme. That’s enough for lawyers to be unleashed, like direwolves who have been on the Mediterranean diet for far too long.
As one generation of campus strawberry breeders prepares to pass the torch to another, the commission in October filed a lawsuit against the university, expressing concern that the campus would end its breeding program.
UC Davis’ reply was as loud and clear as a dragon crying out for its Mother:
“UC Davis is committed to a long-term, positive relationship with the Strawberry Commission, for the benefit of California strawberry growers and the public,“ said Helene Dillard, dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “We are eager to resolve the legal issues and move on to address the many challenges facing the strawberry industry.”
She noted that the college has begun the recruitment process for a new breeder and plant geneticist to join the strawberry program.
To further demonstrate its commitment to maintaining a strong, secure breeding program, the college has made sure that it has two copies of the strawberry plant collection — one for use by the breeders and one to serve as a backup. Each contains patented varieties, advanced selection lines, breeding stock and historical plants.
So is it all a big misunderstanding? Time to return Oathkeeper to its scabbard? Well, there may be a bit more to it than UC Davis allows in its news article. This from an article in The Packer (tag line: Everything Produce) back in January:
The lawsuit alleges that UC-Davis breached its contract with the commission. Among the allegations, the commission says growers are no longer receiving strawberry germplasm specifically developed for them.
The commission wants a judge to stop UC-Davis from allowing two scientists to control and profit from research and cultivars commission members paid for already.
The two scientists have been working on strawberries since the commission’s formal arrangement with the school began in 1980. They are not named as defendants in the case.
According to the commission’s complaint, in early 2012 researchers Doug Shaw and Kirk Larson announced intentions to resign and take the germplasm and research to establish a private company to research and breed strawberries. The university then notified the strawberry commission it planned to terminate the breeding and research program and said it will no longer sell new strawberry varieties to the growers, according to the civil lawsuit.
So it may not be so much about the commitment of UC Davis to the breeding programme, as about the nature of control over its products. We hope the court proceedings — should it go that far — won’t turn into a Red Wedding.