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Public Strawberry Breeding Program Backgrounder: Frequently Asked Questions

By Pat Bailey on May 8, 2017 in Food & Agriculture

The UC Davis Public Strawberry Breeding Program has been a huge success for California. During six decades, the program has developed more than 30 patented varieties, made strawberries a year-round crop in California, and boosted strawberry yield from just 6 tons per acre in the 1950s to 30 tons per acre today.

Thanks to the UC Davis program, California growers pay lower rates than others for our strawberries and get access to new varieties before growers elsewhere. Fees from licensing strawberry varieties go back to the program to support the research and innovation on which the industry relies.

UC Davis has an unwavering commitment to continue the public breeding program today and into the future. Below are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the program: 

What is the UC Davis Public Strawberry Breeding Program?

The University of California has been breeding strawberries since the 1930s, and the Strawberry Breeding Program has been located at UC Davis since 1952. The program, including both research and teaching components, is housed in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Its goal is to develop new, commercially useful varieties of strawberry plants that have higher quality berries, are less vulnerable to pests and diseases and can be grown more efficiently. The program now provides education and training for graduate and undergraduate students.

What is the mission of the UC Davis Public Strawberry Breeding Program?   

The mission of the applied public breeding program is to develop superior varieties that are available to the entire California strawberry industry. Professor Steve Knapp has revitalized the program to train the next generation of breeders and contributors needed to maintain this vital industry, and is applying the tools of genetics and genomics to make gains in areas such as disease resistance, drought and salinity tolerance, taste, and more.  

What is California’s standing in the strawberry industry?

California is the dominant producer of both fresh and processed strawberries, providing more than 87 percent of the strawberries consumed in North America. Strawberry varieties developed at UC Davis produce about 60 percent of the strawberries consumed worldwide.

What was the outcome of the lawsuit between California Berry Cultivars and the University of California?

UC Davis issued the following statement on Sept. 15, 2017: 

"Settlement reached in The Regents of the University of California’s lawsuit against California Berry Cultivars and former faculty

A settlement has been reached in the strawberry breeding dispute between the University of California Regents and California Berry Cultivars (CBC), a private start‐up company formed by strawberry growers and nurseries and including two former UC faculty that ran the UC Davis Public Strawberry Breeding Program.

Both sides have agreed that strawberry plants bred with unreleased UC strawberry varieties will be transferred to and are owned by the UC Davis Public Strawberry Breeding Program where the plants will be evaluated and, if deemed suitable, released to the public. Both sides also agreed that UC owns varieties developed by the UC Davis Public Strawberry Breeding Program and that CBC retains its interests in certain varieties it bred. Both sides’ claims against the other will be dismissed."

What was the verdict on the lawsuit between California Berry Cultivars and the University of California?

On May 24, 2017, a federal jury in San Francisco ruled in favor of the University of California in its lawsuit with the two former UC Davis strawberry breeders and their private breeding company, California Berry Cultivars. The jurors unanimously decided that the two breeders willfully infringed UC patents, breached duties of loyalty and fiduciary duty owed to UC, and converted plant material owned by the UC Davis Public Strawberry Breeding Program to develop berries for their corporate breeding firm, which they established along with several large commercial nurseries and growers. The breeders had established the firm while they were still employed by the university, and had used UC strawberry varieties in the new firm without the university's knowledge or permission.

The case will return to federal court on May 31, when the judge will consider issues related to legal remedies that were not for the jury to decide.

What is the status of the remedy phase of the trial? 

On May 31 and June 1, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria heard testimony in the remedy phase of the trial.  UC is asking the judge to prohibit CBC from using any varieties that are descended from the plant material Shaw and Larson wrongfully took from the UC Davis Public Strawberry Breeding Program.  UC wants to retain possession of the elite plant material and continue to develop public varieties that benefit all farmers.  Larson and Shaw receive royalties from any patented varieties produced with plant material they helped develop during their tenure with the university. They do not have the right to use those plants, which were developed using public funds, in a private business.

The parties submitted briefing on the issues, and final hearing on this phase will occur in federal court in San Francisco on July 6. 

What was the outcome of the summary judgment for the lawsuit between The Regents of the University of California (UC) and California Berry Cultivars, LLC? 

In a summary judgement issued in March 2017, the Court ruled against CBC on all of its claims except for one, and suggested CBC has no damages on that remaining claim.  In contrast, the Court ruled in UC’s favor on patent infringement, ownership of tangible property, and breach of contract. Below is a summary of the Court’s rulings: 

CBC’s claimed:

  • The Court found against CBC on its breach of contract, conversion, and breach of fiduciary duty claims.  CBC’s sole remaining claim has been limited to a single theory, for which the Court has suggested CBC has not shown damages.  
  • Ownership—CBC had claimed it owned strawberry plants developed by former UC employees.  The Court found that UC owns the tangible property rights in these plants.
  • Breach of Contract—UC employees are required to assign rights to the University, and give data to the institution when asked. The Court found the former UC Davis employees who established CBC breached their contracts by not complying with these requests during their time of employment. 
  • Patent Infringement—The Court found that CBC infringed upon UC owned patents by taking strawberry cultivars from the public breeding program for use in its own breeding program. The Court found that CBC also infringed if it imported strawberry seeds from breeding it conducted in Spain with UC patented strawberry plants.   

The following UC claims remained in the case for the jury trial against CBC. Because UC’s claims against CBC were the main dispute between the parties, the Court named CBC as the defendant in the case, although the lawsuit was initially filed by CBC and the former UC breeders.

  • Conversion of Property—Since the Court determined that CBC does not own tangible property rights in UC’s strawberry germplasm (plant-breeding collection), it would be unlawful for CBC to have used this germplasm without UC’s permission. An independent DNA analysis from a professor at Yale University determined that the strawberry plants used by CBC to establish its breeding program were from UC’s strawberry germplasm.  
  • Breach of Duty and Loyalty— The former UC Davis employees who established CBC did so with UC partners and growers while still employed at UC Davis. CBC is a for-profit breeding company using strawberry germplasm from the public breeding program. This was conducted without permission or licensing from UC, and with the  intent to compete with and end the public breeding program. 
  • Business Interference—CBC interfered with UC business relationships, including its licensees.  
  • Patent Infringement—The only issue remaining on UC’s patent infringement claim was the extent of CBC’s infringement. 

Who are California Berry Cultivars, LLC?  

California Berry Cultivars, LLC consists of former employees and breeders of UC Davis who, along with other large commercial nurseries  and growers including: Orange County Growers, California Giant Berry Farms, Western Berries, and International Semillas, LLC, established a corporate breeding company using strawberry germplasm owned by the public UC Davis Public Strawberry Breeding Program.   

How many varieties have been developed by UC Davis strawberry breeders?

The university currently holds patents on more than 30 strawberry varieties, all of which have been licensed to nurseries to commercialize and sell to strawberry growers. For the first two years after patenting, varieties from the program are available only to nurseries in California, giving growers in the state a competitive advantage.

How is the breeding and research program funded?

The program is funded primarily by revenue from licensing strawberry varieties. The amount of licensing revenue varies from year to year but in fiscal year 2015 the University of California collected $6.9 million in gross licensing revenue on five of its patented strawberry varieties. After deduction of certain patent expenses, the remainder is shared between the campus inventors, the UC Office of the President and UC Davis, with some of the university funds going to support the program.

Will UC Davis be licensing the strawberry plant collection to any commercial breeders or other researchers?

The university has decided that the germplasm, or experimental collection of strawberry plants, will be retained strictly in the public breeding program, rather than being licensed to any commercial breeders or companies. The breeding program’s patented and licensed strawberry varieties, however, will continue to be made available for a fee to nurseries, which sell the plants to strawberry farmers.

How does the breeding program benefit strawberry growers?

California farmers pay lower rates than other farmers for UC Davis-developed strawberries because of the strawberry breeding program. The university is committed to ensuring that our rates will remain highly competitive and attractive in the future. Our current licensing fee of 8 cents per each plant that the contracting nurseries sell to growers is considerably lower than those of other university or commercial breeding programs.

What steps has the university taken to ensure the ongoing stability and productivity of the Public Strawberry Breeding Program? 

The university has created multiple copies of each of the approximately 1,700 strawberry genotypes (individuals) in the germplasm collection, which includes historically, scientifically, and economically genetic materials and cultivars. The program currently has new cultivars in the pipeline.

In addition to developing cultivars, the strawberry breeding program is heavily engaged in teaching, training, and mentoring undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Professor Steve Knapp is using genetic and genomic tools to advance the program and is in the process of collaborating with other US land-grant institutions to secure additional funding. The revitalized UC Davis Strawberry Breeding Program will continue to serve California’s strawberry producers, shippers, processors, and consumers, as it has done for more than 60 years. 

Who owns the strawberry plants in the breeding program’s germplasm collection?

The collection of strawberry breeding plants is the property of the University of California. All University of California employees sign a form at the time they are hired, agreeing that any inventions or discoveries that they make during their employment at the university belong to the university. University breeders do, however, get part of the royalties that the university receives on patented and licensed strawberry plant varieties, which the breeders have developed.

Who currently manages the Public Strawberry Breeding Program?

The program is led by Director Steve Knapp, a professor of plant sciences with extensive experience in both university and commercial breeding programs, with Glenn Cole, a senior research associate with extensive commercial breeding experience and Julia Harshman, a postdoctoral scholar with breeding experience in apple and other horticultural species. All are members of the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences. 

What is the organizational structure of the current breeding program? 

Professor Knapp has a team of 11 people working in applied breeding, genetics, and genomics including staff researchers, graduate students, and postdoctoral trainees. 

What are the current locations for the public breeding program?

The UC Public Strawberry Breeding Program operates out of four primary locations:  The UC Davis campus; Wolfskill Experimental Orchards in Winters; field locations in Monterey County; and the South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine. The short-day breeding program is relocating from Irvine to Oxnard over the summer of 2017. 

The strawberry germplasm collection is annually preserved by clonal propagation at the Wolfskill location and securely stored at UC Davis, and the collection is replicated in UC Davis greenhouses. Besides ongoing breeding and genetics experiments at these locations, the program conducts cultivar testing with commercial cooperators near Watsonville, Santa Maria, and Oxnard in open field and protected culture production systems. 

 

Media contact(s)

Andy Fell, UC Davis News and Media Relations, 530-752-4533, ahfell@ucdavis.edu

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