Will the Strawberry Wars never end?

When we last checked on the cut-throat world of Californian strawberries in 2014, the Strawberry Commission, a grower’s association, was suing UC Davis for control of the content of the university’s vaunted breeding programme. The whole thing was precipitated, you’ll remember, by the breeders involved wanting to move on, and take their material with them.

Well, that was apparently settled out of court in early 2015, followed by all sorts of commitments on both sides to work together, and a review of the programme by the state auditors. That included the following recommendations:

  • UC-Davis should ensure that the breeding program is adequately funded and consider allocating more of the university patent income directly back to the program.
  • UC-Davis should regularly reassess whether the royalty rates charged to strawberry nurseries and growers — licensed to sell patented strawberry varieties — are appropriate, and adjust the rates as needed to support the program.
  • UC-Davis’ Department of Plant Sciences, home to the strawberry breeding program, should prepare annual budgets specifically for the breeding program.
  • UC-Davis should in the 2015-16 fiscal year implement a program to begin accounting for the strawberry breeding program’s financial activities separate from the financial activities of the program’s breeder.
  • UC-Davis should periodically review the financial records of the companies that hold licenses to grow and sell the program’s patented strawberry varieties, making sure that the university is receiving all of the royalties it is entitled to.

That doesn’t seem onerous, or unreasonable, to me. But it’s a dog-eat-strawberries world out there, and it looks like the agreement didn’t stick.

Yes, the breeders concerned, who have set up a private company in competition to the UC Davis programme, are now suing their former employers because, they allege, they have been denied the opportunity to license the material they originally produced.

What’s going on? University strawberry breeding programmes in other parts of the country don’t get into such hot water. Thing is, we’re not talking peanuts here.

UC Davis’ breeding program has been crucial to the industry and a big money-maker for the university. Between 2005 and 2014, strawberry nurseries around the world paid UC Davis royalties totaling $50 million. In return, nurseries and their customers – the farmers – have been able to deliver huge improvements in taste and durability developed by the Davis scientists. The two scientists themselves have earned several million dollars, their share of the university’s royalty income.

Strawberry varieties developed at UC Davis account for about half of California’s $2.6 billion-a-year crop. Some of the top names in the business, including Dole and California Giant, rely on UC Davis’ technology.

There are some big players involved, and big money. This won’t end any time soon, I suspect. But the university seems upbeat about the future.

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