ETC Group: A Brief History

How we began: Twenty-five years ago the idea that would become the Rural Advancement Foundation International (and then, in 2001, ETC Group) began with a conversation about seeds. A quarter of a century later, ETC Group is still talking about seeds, but the world has grown more complex: new technologies have developed, economies have globalized, multinational companies have expanded their reach, wealth and capital are concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer giant corporations. Life itself has been manipulated, picked apart, re- assembled –  and then patented.

What we’ve done: For 25 years, we have been advocates on global issues such as the conservation of agricultural biodiversity and food security and on the impact of new technologies on the rural poor. Since the early 1980s, we have conducted groundbreaking research, education and successful social action on issues involving agricultural biodiversity, biotechnology, intellectual property (IP) and community knowledge systems. In the 1990s, our work expanded to encompass social and environmental concerns related to biotechnology, biopiracy, human genomics and, in the late 1990s, to nanotechnology. ETC Group (as RAFI) was the first civil society organization (nationally or internationally) to draw attention to the socioeconomic and scientific issues related to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources, intellectual property and biotechnology.

ETC Group’s international reputation has been built not merely on its effective research, but also on its unique ability to transform research into public policy and institutional change. We have challenged –  and defeated –  patents on crop species and human tissues. Working with partner organizations and people directly affected by abusive claims, we have successfully forced governments to revoke patents and have used public opinion to persuade patent owners in the US, Australia, Europe and India to surrender their exclusive monopoly claims. In the late 1970s, we were the first CSO to recognize the trend toward life patenting and the first to organize against national plant patenting laws (plant breeders’ rights). In the 1990s we shattered the myth that commercial biotechnology aims to feed hungry people by bringing to public light a seed sterilization technology (dubbed Terminator by ETC Group) that threatens to extinguish the right of farmers to save and re-plant their seeds. We are still fighting to ensure that new technologies are developed transparently and their potential benefits shared equitably and that the powerful recognize that the world’s marginalized populations and ecologies are not a petri dish for technological advancement.

ETC Group has consultative and/or observer status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). ETC Group also has a long history with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). ETC Group is a registered CSO in Canada and The Netherlands. Friends of ETC Group is a private non-profit organization under section 501(c)3 in the United States.