GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A top blueberry industry leader called for tougher trade deals to protect local farmers in the wake of an I-Team report that found a taxpayer-funded university has been sharing its technology with the competition in Mexico.
I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern uncovered the taxpayer-funded University of Florida is selling the rights to blueberries plants created by its researchers to farms around the world – including Mexico.
UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Science, which received nearly half a billion in tax dollars in the past three years alone, has come under fire from local farmers, who say by helping foreign competitors, the public university is hurting Florida growers.
But Brittany Lee, president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association, said the university shouldn't shoulder all the blame.
"The University of Florida, while they did contribute to some of the varieties and acreage that are directly competing with us, you know, that's a very small piece of the pie," said Lee.
Lee, a UF graduate who studied at the same institute developing new crops, said it's up to the U.S. government to negotiate trade deals with Mexico that protect blueberry grower and other farmers, especially as many of them face going out of business.
"It's not a great time to be a blueberry grower in this state," Lee said. "The production pressures that we're having as a Florida blueberry industry are terrifying."
In May, the Florida Blueberry Growers Association and Georgia Blueberry Growers Association wrote a letter to local congressmen and senators, accusing Mexican blueberry imports of "crippling" state farmers, and pleading for an update to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
The groups also blames the U.S. Department of Agriculture for using tax dollars, decades ago, to create a popular blueberry variety called "Biloxi." Those blueberry plants were not patented and are now widely available to any farmer, including those in Mexico who sell the crop back to U.S. consumers.
The I-Team found the USDA released that blueberry plant in 1998 – two years after the University of Florida started licensing its own blueberry plants to growers in Mexico.
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