US courts have ordered a Michigan nursery, Hartmann's Plant Company, to pay producers in Huelva a one million dollars fine for the unauthorized multiplication and sale of blueberry varieties. The information provided from Spain was fundamental for the court to rule in favor of Florida Foundation Seed Producer (FFSP), the owner of the plant varieties it obtains through its research at the University of Florida. The ruling also permanently prohibits this nursery from producing and selling blueberry varieties obtained by this university and licensed by FFSP.
Blueberry boom in southern Spain
All of the blueberry varieties that are grown in Huelva derive directly or indirectly from the research that was started at the University of Florida more than 60 years ago. Through genetic crossings, researchers managed to adapt the Highbush blueberry, a cold climate variety, to mild weathered areas, giving rise to a new category, the Southern Highbush. Its commercial development has been a resounding success throughout the world, including the Southeast of Andalusia.
The province of Huelva concentrates 97% of the national berry production and accounts for almost 30% of the European production. The area dedicated to the cultivation of blueberries has grown in the last five campaigns by more than 150%, an unprecedented increase that makes farmers see blueberries as a great option for the coming years. Sales already surpass 160 million euro.
The high demand for blueberry plants in recent years has also stimulated the ambition of some Huelva-based farmers who are illegally producing and marketing plant material, as they lack the corresponding administrative and breeder's authorizations to do so.
The University of Florida: shocked, worried, and categorical
John Beuttenmuller, the director of the Florida Foundation, recently visited the Andalusian company Rústicas del Guadalquivir, an exclusive licensee for blueberries in the EU and North Africa, to analyze piracy practices in situ. The company has a catalog of 26 varieties, including the so-called Snowchaser, Emerald, and Jewel varieties.
Beuttenmuller said that "the research of the University of Florida has allowed the development of blueberry cultivation in temperate zones, like southern Spain, which has already provided important income for the sector, which continues to have excellent future prospects. However, the sustainability of our varietal improvement programs and the future of our research depends on the royalties generated globally. That's why we won't accept that our rights be trampled and we won't hesitate to deny licenses to pirates, both of strawberry and blueberry."
The President of Rustic of the Guadalquivir, José Gandía, said that the teams of the University of Florida were "shocked that some farmers carried out this type of corrupt practices, which not infringe industrial property law but also distort the market, harm honest farmers, and seriously damage the image of Huelva's berry sector."
A few put the sector in danger
Indeed, the negative consequences for the sector are many and increasingly worrisome. Geslive (Plant Licensing Management) stated that "due to the unfair competition created by illegal reproduction, the legal product created by farmers and legal nurseries loses its added value and differentiation. This illicit trade operates underground, making it impossible to trace plant material and facilitating the spread of viruses and other diseases. The sale of plants generates tensions among farmers, cooperatives, and companies in the sector. In addition, it spreads a negative image of the sector abroad, favoring the commercial interests of competing countries."
An additional risk that has serious long-term consequences is that breeders decide to limit the access or not introduce the latest varieties they generate in Spain, which would lead to a loss of competitiveness for the sector.
In recent years, Spain has fined, sentenced to jail, uprooted plantations, and destroyed the plants of the people that infringe intellectual property rights. Currently, there are several ongoing legal proceedings against unauthorized producers in different municipalities of the province of Huelva and new complaints against SEPRONA can't be ruled out. The University of Florida and Rusticas del Guadalquivir have a list of people and entities that are currently being prosecuted for possible crimes against their industrial property. This list can be consulted by distributors and marketers.