In 1986, leaders of rural and farm movements from around the world gathered in Geneva to discuss the deepening farm crisis that was forcing farmers off the land and devastating rural communities. It quickly became clear that many of the obstacles facing farmers in the U.S. were the same challenges facing farmers in Europe, Asia and Africa, and that international trade agreements were deeply affecting local rural communities across the globe. At the conclusion of the Geneva meeting, a small group of rural and farm leaders — who became IATP's original board of directors — identified the need for a new organization to examine the links between global policy and local communities.

Mark Ritchie, then a trade policy analyst for the state of Minnesota, returned from the Geneva meeting to the United States and incorporated the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy as a non-profit, tax-exempt organization, with the mission of fostering sustainable rural communities and regions. In 1987, IATP began to organize and report on the newly launched round of international trade negotiations being conducted by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade or GATT — which eventually became the World Trade Organization. The rules of agricultural trade set in the GATT and implemented at the WTO have deeply influenced national and local farm policies around the globe over the last two decades. Since its founding, IATP has played a unique role in analyzing international trade policy and summarizing the ramifications of these policies on local communities, both in the U.S. and abroad.

In the 1990s, IATP expanded beyond its initial focus on international policymaking institutions like the WTO to include the promotion of positive alternatives to economically, socially and environmentally destructive agricultural and trade practices. This wider focus gave IATP the opportunity to work with a much larger audience of partners. For example, with the Center for Agriculture and the Environment in the Netherlands, IATP developed tools to help U.S. farmers increase their income by reducing on-farm pollution. We tackled major health concerns of rural communities by organizing campaigns to stop the contamination of farmland by toxic waste incinerators. We helped launch international efforts to promote certified sustainable farming, fishing and forestry and sustainable consumption, including fair trade for farmers and fair wages for everyone working to put food on our tables. We put our ideas into action to demonstrate the viability of fair trade by founding Transfair USA, an international fair trade certification organization, and starting Peace Coffee, now a nationally consumed fair trade coffee brand.

With offices and staff in the U.S. and Europe, IATP continues to expand international partnerships, adapting ideas, strategies and experiences from the global community to the challenges facing local communities.