A photographer holds kernels of wheat in his hand in a field of wheat that is ready for harvest on August 15, 2012.
A photographer holds kernels of wheat in his hand in a field of wheat that is ready for harvest on August 15, 2012. - 
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This November, voters in California could be the first in the nation to approve a new law requiring all genetically-modified foods to be labeled. So what exactly does it mean to genetically modify a plant?

It all starts with that tiny little spec of life that we owe our very existence to: the seed.

Janisse Ray spends a lot of her time with seeds, thinking about them, writing about them and (of course) planting them in the ground. Her new book is called "The Seed Underground."

Ray explains that it's only in the last hundred years that farmers have shifted from caretakers to "renters" of genetic material in the form of high-tech seeds. 

"With the advent of patenting laws and the ability to patent life, basically, a patent supercedes the rights of a farmer to save his own seeds," says Ray. Seeds have always had value, but the legal right to plant is a new phenomenon -- thanks to "G.M." or genetically-modified seeds.

"The Seed Underground" also takes readers to farms and neighborhood gardens around the country where people are cataloging and cultivating the seeds their families have planted for generations.  Ray says this underground movement (made up of those she has dubbed "quiet revolutionaries") is one way to preserve varieties of fruits and vegetables for the future.

Ray herself is "not opposed to technology," but she believes science should be used for "the good of all humanity" over the long haul. 

"I'm opposed to science or technology being used for short-term profits," she sums up. "I can say that hybrid seeds have brought us a lot of good, and perhaps [genetically-modified seeds] could."

But, she adds, "there are more questions than answers about genetically-modified organisms at this point."

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Follow Kai Ryssdal at @kairyssdal