GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Federal lawmakers are calling for changes to protect Florida growers after the I-Team exposed how tax dollars are helping the competition in Mexico and hurting local farmers.
U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, told I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern he plans to reach out directly to the University of Florida after an ABC Action News investigation found UF scientists created blueberries for Florida farmers and then the university licensed those same blueberries to competing farms in foreign countries, including Mexico.
“We understand that universities will license their intellectual property from time to time, but it needs to be consistent with the intent of that university and their goals and values," said Soto. "I think the University of Florida and other land grant universities should be careful not to engage in licensing agreements that are going to hurt the very farmers they're supposed to be helping protect. If it’s funded by Florida taxpayers to benefit Florida agriculture, then that should be the consistent mission."
One of those blueberry growers, fourth generation farmer Bo Snively, told the I-Team, "They do help out the community. But they're also benefiting other countries as well, which is killing the small farmer."
UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Science, which oversees the blueberry breeding program, received nearly half a billion dollars from taxpayers in the past three years alone. University officials could not say how much of that money helped support blueberry research.
Dr. Jack Payne, the head of that institute, denies the university contributes to competition from Mexico and said the university is doing nothing wrong.
Payne said without international licensing agreements, foreign farmers would steal the plants and the university would receive no compensation.
"Because it's impossible to stop international theft of plants," said Payne. "You can't stop any country from using it, so we're trying to control it and make money to put back into the industry."
In 2018, blueberry royalties generated more than $5 million for the university.
UF officials said 70 percent of the royalties fund its blueberry breeding program. Another 20 percent is paid to the scientists who developed the plant, while the remaining 10 percent goes to its nonprofit that handles licensing agreements, Florida Foundation Seed Producers.
Payne said it's too expensive for the university to sue to protect its intellectual property, so they license the plants instead.
But Soto isn't buying that excuse.
"This idea that they may not succeed in suing, so they'll just license it out willy-nilly -- it doesn't hold water," Soto said.
U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Gainesville, said the issue of UF licensing competing growers is "a small issue in the whole scheme of things" and called for tougher U.S. trade deals with Mexico to protect Florida farmers.
"So that we're not a disadvantage with cheap labor and things that Mexico can do that we can't," said Yoho. "We want to just make sure that it's an even playing field and I'll put up our farmers against any other farmer in the world. Becuase what they do, they do the best around the world."
Ben Wilcox, of the nonpartisan, nonprofit research institute and government watchdog group Integrity Florida, told the I-Team, "This is going to be an eye opener for a lot of people in Florida."
Wilcox said the university should do more to end what he considers unfair competition.
"People don't want to see our taxpayer dollars and even our blueberry growers' taxpayer dollars are going to fund our competitors," said Wilcox.
Soto said he wants the University of Florida to make changes to its deals with Mexico.
"We'll be looking for potential solutions," said Soto. "Certainly the University of Florida does a lot of great things for our community, but this is something where further consultation and getting the policy right is critical."