Science supports sustainable timber supply

World Forest ID’s aim is to enable the use of science-based species identification and traceability techniques to police trade in the top 200 most commercial and vulnerable timber species. This, it maintains, would deliver a significant blow against illegal logging globally and underpin maintenance of the forest resource, its biodiversity and critical role in climate regulation.

To achieve its goal, World Forest ID (WFID) has set out to create a collection of geo-referenced samples of key timber species from around the world. At the same time, partner laboratories are using such techniques as Stable Isotope Ratio Analysis (SIRA) and DART (Direct Analysis in Real Time) mass spectrometry to record the samples’ chemical and structural profiles, each of which is unique to both species and location.

“The main obstacle to using science-based traceability to date has been that existing wood sample collections around the world are not geo-referenced. So, they cannot be used with these techniques to prove timber origin, which is key in prosecuting illegal timber traffickers,” said WFID chief executive Phil Guillery.

Consequently, he explained, a consortium came together to form World Forest ID and address this shortcoming. It comprised the World Resources Institute (WRI), the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the US Forest Service International Programs Office (USFSIP), WFID’s main funder to date. Also involved are UK-based SIRA experts, Agroisolab and Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London, designated curator of the wood sample collection.

Samples from all over the world
Now a not-for-profit entity in its own right, the range of WFID’s sample collection program is already extensive. Shown on a map on its website, it ranges across 21 countries, from West Africa, Asia (including China) and the Pacific, to north, central and south America, Europe and Russia.

Collectors gather samples of sapwood, heartwood, cambium, bark and leaves from a number of trees of a specific species in a particular area. Using the WFID app, the trees’ location is then registered via GPS to an accuracy of 8-16m.

While some analysis will be done in the samples’ country of origin, most to date has been undertaken by Agroisolab and the USFSIP’s Wood Identification and Screening Centre. Besides SIRA and DART mass spectrometry, methods used include digital imaging and DNA analysis. The project is also focused on traceability of other forest-risk commodities, such as soy, coffee and biofuels.

Free data for cross reference
The end result of the analysis program is a bank of irrefutable scientific data, effectively chemical and structural fingerprints, identifying the wood samples’ species and provenance. Held in a database at the University of Connecticut, this can be freely accessed by ISO-registered public and private test laboratories to cross reference with traded timber so they can prove it’s what it’s claimed to be and confirm it comes from legal, sustainable sources.

“We’ve created the infrastructure and partnerships necessary to build the only open-source geo-referenced wood and agriculture collection in the world,” said Mr. Guillery. “This will enable us to overcome barriers to increasing mainstream use of scientific analysis techniques to rein in the lucrative and destructive trade in illegal forest products.”

He stressed that WFID’s sample collection and database can also be used to identify ‘good wood as well as bad’. Thus it can be employed by the legitimate trade to assure customers its timber is legal and sustainable and its supply chains are deforestation-free.

In its latest project, WFID is working with the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) and other partners. Currently in pilot phase, focused on sample collection and analysis of white oak and tulipwood in Kentucky, the ultimate aim is a species identity and traceability database covering the entire US hardwood forest. This, maintains, WFID could become a model for equivalent nationwide schemes globally.

Thanks to AHEC for its help in writing this article.