The good news about World Trade Organisation talks is that they are back on track, after having fallen apart in Cancun, Mexico, nine months ago. The bad news is that the most that can be hoped for by the end-of-July deadline is an agreement to keep talking. A recent, broad consensus about the need to resolve differences over agriculture - the sticking point in Cancun - means trade ministers will now focus on a framework for further talks. Given the new calls for serious negotiation coming from the European Union, the United States, the Group of Eight and the Group of 20 developing nations, some kind of agreement looks likely. This will buy negotiators another 18 months to complete the current round, rather than having to admit failure and go home empty-handed. The substance behind the framework and prospects for the round generally are another matter. It all hinges upon real progress in the area of agriculture, and specifically on the elimination of the developed countries' annual US$300 billion in market-distorting farm subsidies and tariff barriers. The continued existence of these subsidies harms developing and poor countries most. Their exporters find it impossible to compete abroad, while home markets are likewise flooded with cheap agricultural goods. The situation also makes a mockery of the 'development' goals set by the WTO when it launched the current round at Doha in 2001 and of the free-trade mantra of the world's richest countries. Of course, a worthwhile deal will also depend upon market-opening measures in poor countries. India, for instance, cannot expect the EU and US to change their practices unless it ends its own agricultural protectionism, which includes import tariffs averaging 40 per cent. The EU may have given up demands for contentious new measures in non-farm areas, but it has tied the end of export subsidies to open agricultural markets elsewhere, as well as to cuts in American payments to its farmers. Details to look for in the framework agreement include a reasonably short time frame for elimination of subsidies, concessions allowing poor countries to compete in areas where they can produce goods at a fraction of the rich-world cost - like cotton and sugar - and American commitments on cutting farm support. A less aggressive agreement is better than none at all, but it leaves more hard bargaining for later. Were Doha to fail, it would be disastrous for the premier world-trade body. It would also be detrimental to the world's poorest countries, for whom trade offers far better prospects for development than direct aid. In the wake of the Cancun breakdown, global trade has continued to develop and regional groupings have flourished. But when the poorest countries are being left behind, these are no substitute for a new WTO agreement.