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For conservation biologists, the highest item on the global agenda this year is persuading the world’s nations to agree on new targets for saving nature. National leaders are scheduled to meet in China later this year to finalize a new strategic plan for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), a 30-year-old global pact that sets decadal goals for preserving species and ecosystems. Last week, however, negotiators in Geneva reached an impasse. A major stumbling block is how the world should share billions of bits of genetic data stored on computers around the world.

The debate over these data—known as digital sequence information (DSI)—is new, but it echoes a long-standing point of contention. Developing nations that are rich in biodiversity, such as those in the tropics, have argued that more developed nations have exploited their natural heritage for commercial gain—for example, by using plants collected in the tropics to develop new crops or drugs—without sharing any of the revenue or benefits. That irks many parties, because a main objective of the CBD is to use the conservation of biodiversity to promote... see more