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Forest Management

Isotope Analysis to Improve Timber Traceability

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Current paper-based systems of timber regulation are vulnerable to fraud. Until they are not, we cannot effectively eliminate illegally logged timber from our supply chains. Being able to test the timber directly to trace its exact origin could help defend against falsified papers, this is where isotope analysis and World Forest ID step in.

Isotope analysis is the process by which the ratio of isotopes of a particular element (e.g. 13C/14C) are measured using mass spectrometry. As isotope ratios vary from place to place, this technique can be applied to a suitable sample from an organism or substance to determine it’s geographic origin.

Analysing Mass Spectrometry slides makes identifying illegal timber much easier.
MALDI Mass Spectrometry slide allowing for the detection of targeted molecules (Photo: Courtesy of Imabiotech on Wikimedia Commons, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International)

Spectrometry is already widely used for archaeological and ecological analysis to determine the diet and primary location of an individual. Additionally, and perhaps more relevantly, isotope analysis has also been used for the past 20 years to authenticate the provenance of food1, it is easy to see how this approach could be applied to timber, although only recently has this approach been posited as a way to clean up our supply chains2.

World Forest ID is a consortium that aims to utilise isotope analysis to ensure that the timber travelling through our ports and factories has an authenticated origin. This would give provenance to timber from sustainably managed forests and help weed out illegally logged timber masquerading as being either certified or from a low risk area.

Validated timber through isotope analysis makes it difficult for illegal importing
The validation of the origin of supplied timber would make importing illegally harvested timber far more difficult (Photo: Courtesy of Unsplash)

However, before this can happen, a reference database of isotope ratios from trees around the world will have to be collected. This will allow timber in the supply chain to be compared with the database and a reliable geographic origin found. WFID is building such a database, by collecting samples from forests across the globe using independent third parties. These samples are then sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, where isotope analysis is carried out and an isotope profile is assigned to the exact origin location of the sample.

The building of this database will be a major step in preventing the continued importation of illegal wood and must become a key talking point for governments around the world, serious about cleaning up the global timber industry. To find out more about WFID and their efforts please follow this link.

  1. Kelly, S., Heaton, K., Hoogewerff, J., (2005). “Tracing the geographical origin of food: The application of multi-element and multi-isotope analysis”. Trends in Food Science & Technology16 (12): 555–67.[]
  2. Gori, Y., Stradiotti, A., Camin, F., (2018). ‘Timber isoscapes. A case study in a mountain area in the Italian Alps,. PLOS ONE 13(2): e0192970. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0192970.[]
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