A new tool against illegal logging: tree DNA technology goes mainstream
The role of tree DNA tracking is increasing in the fight against illegal logging as evidenced by prosecution cases in USA and Germany.
Modern DNA technology offers a unique opportunity: you could pinpoint the origin of your table at home and track down if the trees it was made from were illegally obtained. Each wooden piece of furniture comes with a hidden natural barcode that can tell its story from a sapling in a forest all the way to your living room.
"CSI rely on use of genetic info for catching criminals. Exactly the same type of analysis is used for illegal logging," explains Andrew Lowe, a professor in plant conservation biology in University of Adelaide, Australia and Chief Scientific Officer with Double Helix, a company leading in the development of the tree DNA tracking.
This technology is crucial in tracking down illegally-logged timber. More traditional source-of-origin paper certificates can be misplaced or falsified by corrupt officials and businessmen. "But you can't falsify DNA," Lowe says.
Professor Lowe's breakthrough in genetic analysis of tree tissue came when he managed to extract DNA from timber in a 500-year old shipwreck. Obtaining genetic code from processed wood is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together without having a picture to guide you. "It is a non-trivial exercise," he says.
Another challenge is building up a database of DNA fingerprints for each tree species from every region of the world. Without this baseline information, the DNA sample from commercially available timber may not be used to identify the tree species or where it was logged.
"It takes time, energy and money," Lowe says.
International research teams have already collected data for many high value timber species such as Spanish cedar, mahogany, teak, merbau and ebony. They have compiled DNA maps of Indonesia, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Guatemala, French Guyana, Brazil, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Gabon and are currently focusing their efforts in 8 more African countries from the Congo basin.
Using DNA technology, commercially available timber can be definitively certified as 'sustainably sourced.' The cost is less than 1% of the value of the timber—a relatively small premium for consumers who want to ensure that their new home furniture was not a reason for cutting down rainforest.
Some socially responsible companies—mostly outside the U.S.—already sell wood with a DNA certification stamp. However, the American Hardwood Export Counsel is now considering offering DNA verification for their supply chains as well.
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Logging image via Shutterstock.