By David Loyn
Developing world correspondent, BBC News
The World Trade Organization is preparing for a key ministerial meeting in Geneva next week (29 June) to try to save the Doha round of talks.
The US has not responded to African cotton producers' pleas
The negotiations, launched at Doha five years ago, were billed as a "development round", aimed at remedying inequities in global trade in favour of poorer countries.
But the process has become bogged down, with developing countries demanding deeper cuts in support for farmers in the developed world, while the developed world demands more market access for its products.
The chairman of the agriculture committee is due to release a paper on the state of negotiations this week.
This will be the first public attempt since the Hong Kong summit in December to make progress, but the gap between the two sides remains wide.
The G20 group, an alliance set up to co-ordinate the interests of developing countries on agriculture, wants to be able to protect 20% of their farm goods, so-called "special products", while the US has come back with a counter-offer of less than 1%.
America's agriculture negotiator in Geneva, Jason Hafemeister, told the BBC: "Market access is the key. Without market access, the deal isn't really worth having, because you don't get the economic gains that occur through expanded trade.
"We're prepared to open our market more, with a very ambitious proposal. We think others should as well."
The mandate given to the US administration by Congress to engage in the WTO process runs out at the end of the year, which imposes a very real deadline on the talks.
If negotiators in Geneva do not succeed in putting concrete numbers on to paper in the next few weeks, then the technical work needed to complete the round by the end of the year cannot be done.
As well as agriculture, there are also major discussions to be had on liberalising the service sector and further reducing tariffs on industrial goods.
But there is considerable disquiet among developing countries that America, the EU and Japan have not cut support to their farmers enough.
The Venezuelan ambassador to the WTO, Oscar Carvallo, said: "The largest subsidisers and the largest trading partners don't have the political will to reform their agricultural sectors.
"Why do we have to pay for that? Why does the Kenyan poor farmer and Venezuelan poor farmer have to pay for that?"
Venezuela, along with Cuba, expressed "reservations" about the compromise deal reached at the end of the Hong Kong summit, signalling their opposition.
Mr Carvallo now says that if poor countries are asked to make a sacrifice to secure a deal, then his government will not go along with it.
Since the WTO operates as a consensus, any country can theoretically veto the whole deal. And if there is to be a rebellion of this sort, it would be likely to centre on Venezuela, America's strongest critic.
Brazil and other big emerging economies are directing the talks
But the politics of the WTO mean that this seems unlikely to happen. The key negotiations now do not include the smaller and poorer developing countries, but centre on the key emerging economies such as Brazil, India and China.
Matt Griffith, of the aid agency Cafod, says that the deal which will emerge from that process is a long way from the lofty ambitions of the Doha round.
"You're looking at maintaining an imbalanced system with some tinkering around the edges, and that isn't a development round," he says.
"This isn't what the talks set out to achieve at all."
The lowering of expectations for the Doha round also tarnishes achievements that came during 2005's "year for Africa".
Major increases in aid and the cancellation of debt under Britain's leadership of the G8 needed to be followed up by a change in trading terms, allowing Africa to trade its own way out of poverty.
But things that would make a real difference, such as extending tariff reduction from raw materials to processed food and giving African countries the chance to rebuild food industries, are not now on offer.
And the US has not responded to the particular request of African cotton producers to make it easier for them to sell their goods.
Duty-free and quota-free access to goods from the poorest, so-called "least developing countries", is also off the table at the WTO, although Europe and Canada already offer this facility.
Weakest lose most
Whatever happens at the WTO, African countries have already been forced to open up their markets, often with devastating effect, through economic measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund during the last two decades.
"Given that we have liberalised under the structural adjustment programmes, and other programmes, our markets are fully open," says Ann Kamau, who is on Kenya's trade delegation at the WTO.
"We have had an import surge which has really affected our domestic markets," she adds.
"We are not asking for any instrument for protection. We are just trying to safeguard our farmers."
If there is no agreement in the next few weeks, then WTO Director Pascal Lamy will be forced to step in and try to write his own deal, winning consensus around that, if he is to salvage anything from this process.
Paradoxically, despite their weakness, poorer countries know that they potentially have more to lose if no deal is struck.
Mauritian Ambassador Naresh Servansing, a veteran negotiator in Geneva who heads the group of African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, says his members have been reduced to spectators in the process.
"We are very weak and vulnerable countries and we have got only the multilateral system to protect us," he says. "We don't have the kind of might to be able to sign bilateral deals with the major players like the US."
"For us, the multilateral system is extremely important. So we do want a deal, but as you know, getting a deal in this round does not depend on us."