It’s All About the Reference Data

Those of you that read last week about the Xylotron, saw a technology that’s been in development for over five years finally reaching a point where it can start to be utilized in a truly effective manner. The same is becoming true for other technology for wood identification and harvest location specification such as Mass Spectroscopy, Stable Isotope Analysis, Wood Anatomy, and Genetic Analysis (which is often just referred to as “DNA”). These are all finally approaching or even achieving the critical mass of reference data necessary to start playing a real role in enforcement.

It’s all about the reference data. Some machines, like the Xylotron, need more basic data—small samples of the tree will show the wood structure and that will generally be sufficient to identify species. However in many cases, it won’t tell you were the species is from. Something like the Mass Spectroscopy machine or the a genetic analysis, might help narrow down the harvest location, if they have sufficient reference data for comparison.

Think about how science is used with humans. A DNA test might tell you that you’re part Irish, but that’s because they have a lot of data on what “Irish DNA” looks like. (I’m sure it’s green and shamrock shaped, very distinctive!) They checked a whole lot of Irish folk to figure that out and now have reference data. But the first DNA test won’t tell you who specifically your parents are unless you have samples from your parents for comparison. The more samples you have, the more specific you can get.

It’s the same with all these different testing methodologies. They need samples, prepared in different ways, and with different accompany information. Want to find harvest regions? Then you have to know this sample was taken in Ireland not Australia. The more specific you can get, of course the better. “Collected in Ireland” is good, but “collected in Dublin” is better and “collected at the Brazen Head on 20 Lower Bridge St, The Liberties, Dublin, D08 WC64, Ireland” is best. (The Brazen Head advertises itself as Ireland’s oldest pub. Someday I’ll have to stop by to try their bangers and mash.)

There are a lot of challenges in developing the reference databases. Just getting to all the forests is an issue of course. Making sure you know what you are collecting is also key—remember, you can’t always tell one species from another unless you see a flower or a nut or cut it open. But another issue is that there are some groups that are trying to find ways to monetize the data, so it’s not always available for every organization to utilize.

To help expand the public data, FSC, with other partners, has created the Global Timber Reference Project. They are starting with sample collection from over 1500 certified forests around the world. Now that’s a project! We’re still a long way from their stated goal of “being able to ID a species within minutes and tell you with 5km were it came from,” but someday that may well be possible.

And as a final note, speaking of reference data, a quick update on a post from a few weeks ago about Ipé. Brazil has decided to withdraw Ipé from consideration for a CITES listing this year. They want to develop more specific reference data about the species before determining how best to protect both the species and the trade. After all, the details are in the data.

Elizabeth Baldwin is Environmental Compliance Officer for Metropolitan Hardwood Floors. In her 25 plus year career in the wood industry has visited over 70 countries and hundreds of facilities of all sizes and types. She describes herself as a “jack of all wood trades.” Familiar with jungles of all sorts–having camped out along the Amazon and walked the halls of Congress–she blogs for the NWFA on both environmental and regulatory issues for educational and informational purposes only. Her blog is not intended and should not be construed as legal advice. Persons seeking legal advice on compliance with CARB, TSCA, the U.S. Lacey Act or any other law, regulation, or compliance requirement/claim should consult with the regulatory agency directly and/or a qualified legal professional.

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