A bitter legal battle in California is blocking everyone from eating sweeter strawberries

Food fight.
Food fight.
Image: Reuters/Regis Duvignau
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Two retired food scientists are locked in an epicurean feud with the University of California over the fate of the strawberry.

The university is preparing for trial in federal court this month, in a case alleging its former employees—Douglas Shaw and Kirk Larson—stole the school’s intellectual property when they decided to set up a strawberry-breeding business.

For years, the two scientists—both former professors at the university’s campus in Davis—had conducted painstaking research in the lab and strawberry fields in a quest to figure out how to grow a strawberry that’s bigger, brighter, and stays sweeter for longer than average. They apparently made a lot of progress; the scientists have filed a $45 million countersuit against the university, claiming it unfairly kept their research locked away in a freezer—research that could be a major boon to the strawberry industry writ large, according to the Associated Press.

California is home to some 400 strawberry growers across five distinct geographic areas in the state. Those farmers grow about 88% of American strawberries—close to 1.7 billion lb (770 million kg) a year, which is worth roughly $2 billion, according to the California Strawberry Commission. It’s the state’s warm sunny days that collapse into cooler, foggy nights that make it such an ideal place for growing the fruit.

As it turns out, the sheer size of California’s annual strawberry production is, in no small part, a testament to the work done by Shaw and Larson. During their careers, the researchers discovered and developed two dozen new varieties of strawberries—some of which are resistant to pests and disease, and able to be grown during shorter daylight hours.

Still, their success wasn’t enough to give them a free pass to retire and open a business that they named the California Berry Cultivars—in which they continue their work developing new types of strawberries. The school says the former professors broke an agreement they signed to not enrich themselves by taking or getting biological material to continue their work. The two former scientists say they own the intellectual property in question.

The lawsuit puts on hold some of the development work on a better strawberry—meaning it could take that much longer to reach the broader goal of creating the perfect strawberry.