Provenance & ID Tracing

A project team supported by the Environment Institute at the University of Adelaide.

A high proportion of globally traded products, including food and timber, are the target of fraud. Technology now exists to identify and stop this illegal trade.

Ecological Fraud

The United Nations and Interpol estimate the cost of trading illegally sourced timber at $206 billion each year. Illegal logging not only leads to real economic impact, including to local communities, but also results in a loss of biodiversity and increased carbon emissions, which makes it the largest environmental crime by value in the world.

In Australia, local timber producers are at a disadvantage, having to compete against cheap, illegal imports. It is estimated that $800 million of Australia’s imported timber may be illegal in origin.

Legislation to criminalise the importation of illegally sourced timber has been recently introduced to Australia, Europe and Indonesia. The USA has stepped up its enforcement of the Lacey Act, which prohibits the import of illegally sourced timber. There is a global need and a growing demand for tools and systems that reduce the trade in illegal timber.

Premium Australia food products also attract the unwanted attention of fraudsters wanting to cash in on Australia’s food and wine reputation. Globally Price Waterhouse Cooper report that food fraud is valued at $54 billion, and that a single food fraud incident can cost 2-15% of the annual revenue of a company. Recently Food Innovation Australia Ltd reported that lost Australian food and wine export sales due to food fraud was estimated at $1.7B per year and that more must be done to protect products and brands in foreign markets.

  • Provenance & ID Tracing expertise

    Researchers at the University of Adelaide are developing cutting edge DNA technologies and sophisticated chemical tracing methods for a broad range of biological samples to answer questions related to illegal trade, biosecurity, environmental crime, conservation management and crime scene investigation.

    This expertise includes the purpose-built state-of-the-art laboratory - the Advanced DNA Identification and Forensics Facility (ADIFF) - housed in the Braggs building at the University of Adelaide, which develops and utilises cutting-edge molecular techniques, including a patented method for extracting DNA from timber, to analyse plant, animal, and environmental samples.


    ADIFF is a member of the Australasian Environmental Law Enforcement and Regulators neTwork (AELERT). All methods developed in ADIFF are available as a commercial service. The team of scientists at ADIFF can work with clients to develop suitable methods if there are none currently exist.

Focal areas

  • Timber

    Our team of researchers have been instrumental in the implementation of scientific verification within international timber supply chains. The timber industry estimates that 10-30% of timber exports are illegal. But a recent blind samples of imports into Australia placed the proportion of illegally sourced timber at 40%.

    Our teams specialise in the identification of genetic markers through rigorous screening of plant species across their natural ranges. These advanced DNA analysis tools can be applied to timber samples to identify the geographical provenance of a sample and provide individualisation for illegal logging and chain of custody analysis. Currently, genetic markers can be used to determine the provenance of the following timber speices: teak, sandalwood, oak, meranti, bigleaf maple African cherry and African teak. The development of markers for more species is an ongoing process.

    In addition to generating genetic tools for provenance testing, timber material screens can be developed to differentiate between closely related species such as sandalwood or meranti. These tools are commercially available and have been used to provide evidence in ongoing cases of illegal logging.

    Species identification is also possible – we use a novel DNA barcoding method targeting multiple single-copy chloroplast loci to identify the species of plant material. This method can be applied to a wide variety of different plant materials including fresh leaves, processed timber and even pollen off the legs of bees.

    We also have the capability to use stable isotopes to identify the geographical origin of samples. When DNA cannot be recovered, the unique isotopic signature of a sample can be used to identify the provenance. Spatial variation created by differences in hydrology, climate, soil/bedrock type and agricultural practices results in an isotopic signal that contains a unique ratio of heavy and light isotopes that can be used to trace the sample back to its origin.

  • Food

    Problems with food fraud can be identified through DNA barcoding. This type of analysis has been used successfully to verify the species of fish and other animal products.

    These novel DNA barcoding methods can also be used to verify the species composition of mixed products such as spices, meat and plant composite products, and is sensitive enough to detect the presence of adulterated samples containing plant or animal species other than those specified.

  • Oils and processed food products

    For more highly processes products we can apply a range of chemical and visual tracing and identification methods, for example stable isotopes, metabolomic profiling or computer vision analysis.

    Stable isotope profiling has been used successfully to solve cases of illegal logging of sandalwood timber and oil products in Australia. These and other methods hold tremendous promise for verifying the origin of processed food, beverage and oil products in Australia’s supply chains.

  • Mixed sources, eDNA and forensics

    Metabarcoding has proven to be a valuable tool that has been widely applied to characterise the mix of species in a range of biological samples:

    • Pollen isolated form bees or honey can be DNA metabarcoded to identify the source plants, which in tern can confirm regional origin or pollination source.
    • The diversity of prokaryotes, eukaryotes and fungi can be used to characterise environmental samples. For example the metabarcoding profile of soils has potential to be used as a forensics tool to verify the region of origin of soil samples.
    • The characterisation of diatoms from eDNA extracted from freshwater samples has also shown promising results as a forensics regional identity tool.
  • Weeds and pest origins

    The agriculture and environment costs of invasive species due to lost production and control cost in excess of $5B per year in Australia.

    Our teams are developing rapid ID tools and modelling and gene drive technologies to identify and control outbreaks. DNA analysis can also help identify the original source of introduction of a pest or weed and help direct control efforts or technology development.

  • Supply chain analysis

    Not all supply chains represent risk of illegal sourcing or mixing of products. Geo-referenced information and supply chain analytical tools can be used to assess the risk profile of supply chains and then used to direct the application of a range of suitable verification tools, as identified above.

    Here at the University of Adelaide we have used these methods to assess risks in timber, wildlife and medicinal product supply chains.


Areas of expertise

Contact us

Would you like to discuss working with the Provenance & ID Tracing team?

Contact: Professor Andrew Lowe
Theme lead – Sustainable Landscapes
Environment Institute 
School of Biological Sciences
The University of Adelaide SA 5005 Australia
T: +61 434 607 705