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Double Helix Uses DNA to Track Timber, Fight Illegal Logging

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Issue date: 
November 20, 2009
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Think of it as CSI for the timber industry.

Singapore-based Double Helix Tracking Technologies (DHTT) uses DNA tests to verify the origins of timber. Essentially, it’s the same technology that’s used in forensics and paternity testing –only DHTT has adapted it specifically for wood.

“What we’ve done is to develop a very creative solution that builds upon existing scientific techniques and applies them to an old-fashioned industry,” explains Darren Thomas, managing director at DHTT.

But, why does wood have to be scrutinized so carefully?

Because illegal logging is now a costly, multi-national problem.

Illegal logging doesn’t just cause environmental damage. It also depresses world timber prices, costs governments billions of dollars in lost revenue, promotes corruption, displaces indigenous populations, undermines the rule of law and good governance, and funds armed conflict. In short, illegal logging contributes to a wide range of negative environmental, economic, and social consequences, all of which prevent sustainable development in some of the poorest countries of the world.

By some estimates, up to 30 percent of the hardwood lumber and plywood traded globally could be of suspicious origin. Third-party certification (from the Forest Stewardship Council ,e.g.) and legality verification programs are in place, but these paper‐based chain‐of‐custody systems are difficult to manage, expensive, and perhaps worst of all, they’re quite vulnerable to fraud.

DHTT wants to improve that often unreliable paper trail with scientific DNA analysis that tracks timber through the supply chain, from stump to log pond to sawmill.  The company’s Timber Tracking service takes DNA samples from trees at the point of harvest, and then again from the same logs (according to chain-of-custody documentation) further down the supply chain.

The two samples are analyzed in the lab, and if they match, the chain-of-custody is verified intact.

“If they don’t match, then the buyer knows there was a problem somewhere in the supply chain and to take corrective action,” Thomas explains.

In addition to its Timber Tracking service, DHTT is also developing a Timber Origin program that will fine-tune wood verification even more. For this program, DHTT is creating a genetic database from a variety of different tree species, beginning with the vulnerable species known as merbau.  Similar to the human genome project, DHTT’s Timber Origin program will be the world’s first practical system to identify the origin and species of processed wood products using DNA.

“Once the Timber Origin data base is established, clients will send a sample of a table, chair or piece of flooring to us for testing and we will confirm where the timber was harvested, as well as the species,” Thomas explains.

Thanks to the newly amended Lacey Act, all U.S. importers must exercise “due care” to ensure that products coming into the country are sourced legally. But, relying only on a paper chain-of-custody trail can lead even certified buyers into trouble. Just yesterday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that Nashville-based guitar manufacturer Gibson is under investigation for importing endangered species of rosewood from Madagascar.

According to Thomas, DHTT is working to make the wood verification process more reliable, more efficient, and more affordable.

“Legitimate traders who are purchasing sustainable timber are being undermined by illegal logging,” he says. “They want a system that will eliminate illegal stock so they can compete on equal footing.”

DHTT, an OG 25 winner, was incorporated only a year ago, and the company is actively looking for funding support.

“We help our customers exclude illegally harvested timber from their supply chains,” Thomas says. “What we’re offering is an affordable, scientific, industry solution.”

And in time, that affordable, scientific, industry solution might just save the world’s forests.

More information about Double Helix Tracking Technologies is available here.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut