Most of the current commercial applications of modern biotechnology in agriculture are on reducing the dependence of farmers on agrochemicals. For example, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a soil bacterium that produces a protein with insecticidal qualities. Traditionally, a fermentation process has been used to produce an insecticidal spray from these bacteria. In this form, the Bt toxin occurs as an inactive protoxin, which requires digestion by an insect to be effective. There are several Bt toxins and each one is specific to certain target insects. Crop plants have now been engineered to contain and express the genes for Bt toxin, which they produce in its active form. When a susceptible insect ingests the transgenic crop cultivar expressing the Bt protein, it stops feeding and soon thereafter dies as a result of the Bt toxin binding to its gut wall. Bt corn is now commercially available in a number of countries to control corn borer (a lepidopteran insect), which is otherwise controlled by spraying (a more difficult process).
Crops have also been genetically engineered to acquire tolerance to broad-spectrum herbicide. The lack of herbicides with broad-spectrum activity and no crop injury was a consistent limitation in crop weed management. Multiple applications of numerous herbicides were routinely used to control a wide range of weed species detrimental to agronomic crops. Weed management tended to rely on preemergence—that is, herbicide applications were sprayed in response to expected weed infestations rather than in response to actual weeds present. Mechanical cultivation and hand weeding were often necessary to control weeds not controlled by herbicide applications. The introduction of herbicide-tolerant crops has the potential of reducing the number of herbicide active ingredients used for weed management, reducing the number of herbicide applications made during a season, and increasing yield due to improved weed management and less crop injury. Transgenic crops that express tolerance to glyphosate, glufosinate and bromoxynil have been developed. These herbicides can now be sprayed on transgenic crops without inflicting damage on the crops while killing nearby weeds.
From 1996 to 2001, herbicide tolerance was the most dominant trait introduced to commercially available transgenic crops, followed by insect resistance. In 2001, herbicide tolerance deployed in soybean, corn and cotton accounted for 77% of the 626,000 square kilometres planted to transgenic crops; Bt crops accounted for 15%; and “stacked genes” for herbicide tolerance and insect resistance used in both cotton and corn accounted for 8%.