A new tool against illegal logging: tree DNA technology goes mainstream

By Tanya Dimitrova, special to mongabay.com
April 22, 2013

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.

Logging truck carrying timber out of the Malaysian rainforest. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Logging truck carrying timber out of the Malaysian rainforest. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

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.

Regulators in many countries have also taken advantage of the DNA tracking technology. It is easy and not so expensive to do spot checks for timber stocked in warehouses or sawmills. A single test can cost less than $400 and take just a week: with a dice-size wood sample the inspector can find out the exact tree species and its country of origin.

Lowe explains that at the moment there are two ongoing criminal investigations in the U.S. and Germany where prosecutors are using genetic analysis to substantiate claims of legality by timber suppliers. This approach sets an important legal precedent in the fight against illegal logging. The shipments have been seized by regulatory authorities and sent off for DNA testing. The cases are still under investigation and the parties involved have not been publicly announced, however, if the illegal origin of the timber is proven, hefty fines will be imposed on the suppliers.

And rightly so, according to Jonathan Geach, Executive Director of Double Helix. "Do you think it's legal to sell something in your country which was stolen in another?" he asks. With laws such as the Lacey Act in the U.S. and the EU Timber Regulation, requiring companies to prove that the trees for their wooden and paper products were legally sourced, this company's services will become more and more popular.

But consumers have a large role to play in this process, according to Geach. "When they hear stories about large areas of deforestation, they throw their hands and say 'Ah, what can we do? This is terrible!' Well, actually there's loads that you can do! Just stop buying illegal timber!"

Geach suggests that next time you go into a Lowe's or IKEA, just ask: "'What is it? Where is it coming from?' And if people say 'Oh, it comes from a sustainable source,' ask them how do they know that. IKEA can find out where that stuff is coming from; it's just a matter of will."

CITATION: Lowe AJ, Cross HB (2011) The Application of DNA to Timber Tracking and Origin Verification. Journal of the International Association of Wood Anatomists 32(2): 251-262.

AUTHOR: Tanya Dimitrova is a freelance writer who has traveled widely. She joined Mongabay for the summer of 2013.

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By Tanya Dimitrova, special to mongabay.com (April 22, 2013).

A new tool against illegal logging: tree DNA technology goes mainstream.