Kew Gardens uses DNA to tackle illegal logging

A landmark partnership between Kew and the Forest Stewardship Council is using DNA technology to help prevent illegal logging, estimated by Interpol to cost between up to £76 billion annually.


Globally renowned centre for botanical and mycological knowledge, Kew Gardens, and global forest management not-for-profit, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), have teamed up to use identification technologies that allow scientists to determine the species and origin of timber using only a small piece of the wood.

FSC started using these technologies in 2011, launched a pilot across North America in 2017, and are now expanding the project further.

To increase the number of database samples, which must first be recorded before a match can be established, FSC are now working with partners including Kew and the US Forest Service. The ultimate aim is to facilitate on-the-spot tests for timber across the globe and increase transparency across the supply chain.

Identification techniques

Recent evidence and reports from the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF International) have shown that in Latin America shipments of illegally logged wood were being shipped alongside FSC-certified timber. By expanding the database of samples with credible partners, FSC will further build the credibility of their system and help mitigate against these risks. 

The project aims to collect over 200 samples from up to five commonly traded wood species in FSC-certified forests of Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and PeruThey will ultimately expand the work across the 1,900 FSC-certified forests across all the major and minor timber producing regions in the world. 

Michael Marus, Chief Knowledge Officer at the Forest Stewardship Council, said: “This project is not just about playing a critical role in strengthening FSC by increasing its sampling of wood and integrating this information by using digital technology support. It is also about contributing to science and the evolution of Wood Identification techniques and methods which are fundamental to addressing a host of major challenges our forests face today, including climate change.”

“Of equal or greater importance for FSC is the unique role we contribute to the collection of reference samples from the over 1,500 FSC certified forests found across the globe.

"Being able to work with the leading forensic labs such as The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the US Forest Service Forest Products Lab and Agroisolab is a unique opportunity to develop a library of geo-referenced wood samples that will be made available to qualified labs across the world.

Illegal trade

Marus continued: "This partnership will allow enforcement agencies and responsible corporations to use these new scientific techniques to rid supply chains of illegal wood and will go a long way towards fulfilling FSC’s mission to promote responsible forest management. It will be critical for combatting illegal logging and addressing climate change.”

Dr Peter Gasson, Research Leader, Wood and Timber, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has said that he is “delighted that we are working with FSC and the US Forest Service to improve our xylarium (wood collection).

"Kew has one of the largest and most extensive xylaria in the world, with worldwide coverage and c.42,000 named wood samples. There are plenty of gaps in our collection, and FSC is well-placed to help us fill some of them with georeferenced samples from their worldwide concessions. 

Ed Espinoza, Deputy Director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory explained that the collaboration is effective “not just to combat illegal trading of timber but also to aid the trade of legal species. If we have abundant, reliable reference samples, we are able to facilitate the trade of legal species and keep in check the trade of illegal species.”

This article 

This article is based on a press release from the Forest Stewardship Council. Image: Working the punch to successfully collect wood samples from a FSC-certified Bozovich concession in Peru. © Marysol Jaime/Forest Stewardship Council.

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