Illegal logging is a huge problem that contributes to all kinds of environmental damage and social unrest. Fighting it is hard because paperwork can be forged and officials can be bribed, making even wood with a legit-looking paper trail suspect. Tree DNA cannot easily be falsified, though, and that makes it an ideal 'fingerprint' to verify the true origin of imported wood. That's exactly what companies like Double Helix Tracking, a firm based in Singapore, offer. They test wood DNA and then match it against their DNA library which contains many species of wood with their geographical distribution. It's still early day, so a detailed global map exists only for about 20 species, but over time it could become possible to know with great certainty where wood is coming from.
John Simon, the boss of Simmonds Lumber, another DoubleHelix client, explains how it works. His firm, an Australian timber importer, used to rely on masses of paperwork when buying merbau, a pricey hardwood from Indonesia. Given the ease with which proof-of-origin papers can be faked, it was hard to tell where any of it really came from. Now, thanks to DoubleHelix, Simmonds can show that a piece of merbau decking assembled in Australia comes from a specific (and legit) stump in Indonesia.
“We do it for both moral and business reasons,” says Mr Simon. Customers like to know that their decking is not destroying the planet. And company bosses want to stay out of trouble. Conservation laws are growing fiercer, especially in America, where businessfolk who break them may be jailed even if they did not know their wood was illegally sourced. (source)
As prices for DNA sequencing costs keep falling, and as DNA species maps plug their holes, it seems logical that this tool should become the default way of verifying the origin of wood. It could made a huge difference and help fight the $30 billion/year illegal wood harvesting industry.
Something similar is also being done to fight poaching: CSI Wildlife: DNA Forensics Used to Prevent Elephant Poaching and CSI Wildlife Part Two: 2 Eco-Crimes Unmasked by DNA Forensics.