Magi Richani loves cheese, but the 34-year-old entrepreneur is lactose intolerant and her plant-based diet, started in her 20s, never could replicate the “stretchy mouthfeel,” as she puts it, of old-fashioned dairy cheese. That started Richani on a now seven-year journey to make the world’s best cheese—without involving a cow.
“I grew up in Lebanon, and cheese is such a big part of my diet,” Richani told Newsweek during a recent phone interview. “It reminds me of time with family and memories and, you know, it’s very cultural, too.”
Richani is the founder of San Francisco-based Nobell Foods, a startup company developing a new kind of cheese made from soybeans. She says plant-based cheese not only accommodates people who can’t consume dairy, but it also could be key to more sustainable food production worldwide.
“The reality is that when you raise an animal for food, it’s not just the animals, you are actually growing crops, you are clearing land, growing crops to [make] food, like plant materials, to feed the animals and then you’re raising the animal for years so it builds biomass,” Richani explained. “It’s an extremely inefficient supply chain.”
Nobell is particularly focused on creating planet-based casein, a crucial protein that’s found in dairy cheese. Casein, which is produced when a cow gives birth and is present in the milk for its offspring, is the ingredient that gives cheese its unique stretchy texture.
In an earlier email to Newsweek, Richani elaborated on the role of caseins, which she admitted are “inherently difficult to produce outside of a cow.”
“We had to try hundreds if not thousands of things that didn’t work in order to gather those clues that got us closer to success,” she wrote.
In January, Forbes reported that approximately 70 billion animals worldwide are in factory farms for food production. It’s a statistic that is important to Richani, who said “there isn’t enough land on this planet to keep raising more animals to feed people.”
“It is a hard concept to grasp because as consumers, we are often disconnected from the food supply chain,” she told Newsweek via email, “but we are literally trading rainforests and wildlife for cheeseburgers and pizza.”
In 2019, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported that total agricultural land worldwide was 11.8 billion acres, about two-thirds of which were permanent meadows and pastures used for livestock (7.9 billion acres).
According to Richani, Nobell’s next big milestone will be bringing its plant-grown cheese to market. The company has an online waitlist for cheese-lovers who are eager to get a taste of its stretchy creation.
“The two things that really matter for us are product quality, which is taste and functionality, and cost because…the thing with climate change that most people don’t talk about is, at the end of the day, it’s a privilege in itself to be able to think and make decisions based off of climate impact,” Richani said. “The data shows that the decision is based off price, taste and convenience, so for us to have a meaningful impact, those are the things we want to hit.”
Footprint Coalition Ventures, led by actor Robert Downey Jr., is backing Nobell in its mission. On its website, the eco-focused venture capital firm says worldwide dairy production emits about 3.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, a statistic also reported in 2021 by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Between 2005 and 2015, the journal added, “annual dairy-related emissions increased by 256 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent, an 18 percent increase.”
Richani says Footprint is a natural ally for Nobell.
“They’re great, they’re really good partners, they’re very supportive, they’re very mission-aligned,” she said. “You can be a celebrity and just use your fame to sell more makeup or whatever and just make more money. It’s just nice and refreshing to see someone who can do so much with their time and influence, but uses it to shed light [and] bring awareness to this topic.”
If Nobell is able to go to market and have the kind of impact it’s hoping to, then plant-based cheese could help us stretch toward a more sustainable future.