Blockchain Systems May Create an Accountability System for Herbal and Botanical Products and Ingredients

The global trade in botanical products has been steadily increasing. Thus, creating a growing concern about the ethnopharmacology, quality, and social and economic viability of botanical resources. Valid concerns have been raised regarding equitable benefit-sharing, responsible sourcing, and sustainable supply. Cultivated or wild-harvested material, varied regulation among different markets and in different countries, insufficient knowledge and poor practice regarding threatened and endangered species and habitats, and limited information exchange in the supply chain all contribute to the challenges for botanical products. In the past, these concerns have been addressed through quality standards in pharmacopeia or industrial quality control standards. This article explores the benefits of using a blockchain (BC) system to determine equitable benefits for producers, sustainable sourcing and production, and overall quality of the final product.

A BC is a system of decentralized data storage built on a net of users, each becoming a node of that network. As new information is added, it is linked to previous information, or blocks, forming a chain of information. This BC stores the history of all the interactions along the chain. There are as many copies of the BC as there are computers in the network along that chain. Once data are entered into the BC, it cannot be modified within the system; only a single copy on an individual computer can be modified. Validation prior to entry into the BC is a key component of this system. Any modifications can be easily targeted and flagged as corrupt. This is distinctly different than a centralized storage system, which can spread corrupt data across the entire system.

Smart contracts (SCs) are a feature of the BC framework. SCs offer digital validation and execution of contracts. This allows for prompt electronic payment upon completion of the terms of the contract. The benefits of SCs include increased reliability, increased economic benefits, increased trust along the supply chain, and increased benefits of commercialization.

BC systems may assure quality along herbal value chains. Herbal and medicinal products are more complex. They are typically more variable in chemical composition. The same plant may be used in herbal preparations and as food or medicine. Only a small percentage of botanicals are produced under pharmaceutical quality control guidelines. BCs identify locations of environmental concern, such as cultivation sites high in heavy metals, as well as pesticide and chemical use in the processing, storage, and transportation of botanicals. BCs can be used to quickly identify unintentional and intentional adulteration of plant material and botanical products. BC systems facilitate traceability and accountability of botanical product components.

According to the Ethical Consumer Markets Report 2017, consumer spending was motivated by the sustainability certification of goods. BC systems have the ability to maintain baseline data on what is harvested and collected, which can improve sustainability, provided sustainable production systems are developed. Additionally, geo-tracking and initial processing information can prevent overexploitation. BC systems are one way of remaining transparent to both the consumer and the producer of the economic benefits and resulting values. Similarly, BCs can provide information on organic and sustainable sourcing and the social and environmental impact of production.

Often botanical products are the combination of several different herbs, such as those found in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). To increase the complexity, these herbs are often prepared in a specific manner unique to TCM or other traditional medicines. TCM products are manufactured for sale in Asian markets and are often difficult to sell in markets outside China. This is due not only to the complexity of the formula but also to confusion in species authentication. BC systems allow for transparency for suppliers, processors, and end-users.

Intellectual property rights are part of the development of new medicinal herbal products. The Convention on Biological Diversity was established to protect biodiversity and genetic resources. However, violation seldom leads to prosecution. Supplements and botanical products are not required to list where their source material originated. A BC provides that information, thus making source material transparent to authorities enabling them to prevent the sale of illegal products.

The authors conclude that BC systems present an opportunity to explore the limitations as well as the potential of its use for highly valued botanical products. BC system technology is easy to use, versatile, and relatively cost-effective. The authors state the BCs enable producers to secure quality products with increased traceability to resolve problems. “The blockchain system will provide a much easier way to trace a product from ‘field to fork’.”

The authors report no conflicts of interest.


Heinrich M, Scotti F, Booker A, Fitzgerald M, Kum KY, Löbel K. Unblocking high-value botanical value chains: Is there a role for blockchain systems? Front Pharmacol. April 2019;10:396. DOI: 10.3389/fphar.2019.00396.