Strawberries and lawsuits: Future of favorite fruit hinges on intellectual property

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(Credit: Ewan Traveler/ Flickr)

How many genetically unique variants of strawberries would you guess exist? A few hundred? You’d be way short: the University of California, Davis alone houses some 1,600 types on its own, according to a report in the LA Times.

This wealth of strawberry genetic material — the raw stuff from which new breeds can be created — is the source of more than half of all supermarket strawberries today, says NPR. It’s also at the center of a legal controversy about that most favored of biotechnology topics: intellectual property.

The Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Charlie Petit has a nice summary of the news story here. In short:

Strawberry breeding maestro Douglas Shaw and his partner Kirk Larson are leaving UC Davis. They want to take some copies of the varieties they’ve been developing for years and use them to set up a private enterprise. The “quasi-governmental” California Strawberry Commission got wind of this and grew alarmed.

The Commission had been funding the strawberry breeding program at UC Davis until 2012, “to the tune” of $350,000 per year, according to the L.A. Times. In exchange, growers associated with the Commission got discounts. When the Commission heard that (1) the breeding program at UC Davis might be losing its guiding lights and getting shuttered and (2) the source of strawberry breeds they depended on might go private, they sued.

“Farmers don’t want to sue. They just want to be in the field,” Commission president Rick Tomlinson told the Sacramento Bee. “Truly, this was a last resort.”

Currently, the school and the Commission are in talks to find a settlement. Despite assurances from UC Davis that the strawberry-breeding program will continue and that Shaw and Larson will not be allowed to sneak off with the entire strawberry collection and turn it into private enterprise, the Commission is not mollified.

The Commission is behaving as though its support of the program gave it ownership, but no-where is this a legal arrangement. It’s not as though the Commission was a majority shareholder in a private company — even though, as NPR pointed out, the school program already acts like a private company and makes quite a bit of money off the royalties and patents for its new strawberry breeds.

The differing perspectives highlight, as the LA Times notes, universities’ “role in the nation’s agribusiness and the rights to intellectual property that, in this case, just happens to be edible.” (It also highlights, in my opinion, the impact one man can have on an entire industry; Shaw’s decision to leave UC Davis and go private has been enough to spur a statewide controversy.)

This isn’t the first time strawberries have graced Gene-ius; I picked up a blog post from SciAm some months ago about the efforts of breeders to use modern genetics in an effort to bring some flavor back into a (non)fruit that had grown — in the quest for big, red fruit that ship well and produce in bulk — rather bland.

The story of the modern strawberry is very much the story of modern farming, with huge amounts of money involved and decades upon decades of laborious breeding efforts having created hundreds upon hundreds of proprietary varieties. To what extent do these varieties belong to the growers? And to what extent the breeders?

It’s a question that defines modern, biotech-assisted agriculture.

Kenrick Vezina is Gene-ius Editor for the Genetic Literacy Project and a freelance science writer, educator, and naturalist based in the Greater Boston area.

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