In America, there’s no greater symbol of success than a plush green lawn. For many who prize such a spread, the ultimate preening tool is Monsanto’s Roundup, a very popular weed killer used by both general consumers for lawn care and farmers on large-scale cotton, soybean, and corn farms. But recent lawsuits have called into question the safety of these chemicals on human health and the environment. A new company with a fresh round of capital is hoping to lure Roundup users to a less toxic fertilizer that naturally suppresses weeds.
“A really healthy thick lawn that fights off weeds is much, much better than covering your entire property in 2,4-D or some other compound,” says Coulter Lewis, CEO of Sunday, a direct-to-consumer lawn care company that sells four formulas of nontoxic fertilizer. (The chemical he refers to, 2,4-D, is a common pesticide.) Lewis’s company, founded last year, recently closed a $9.5 million combined seed and Series A round of venture capital funding. Both Tusk Ventures and Forerunner Ventures contributed funding. Coulter previously cofounded Quinn Snacks, a healthy snack company, with his wife, Kristy Lewis, who now leads that venture.
Launched in April, Sunday’s product is now covering nearly 1,000 acres. The company uses satellite imagery, historical weather data, area geology, and a soil test to match each customer’s lawn with a custom mixed formula. It’s $129 for a year’s worth of fertilizer in three shipments. The idea is that by analyzing the size of the lawn and its soil composition, the company can deliver both a specific combination or fertilizers and the right amount to grow and strengthen the grass. “We’re analyzing your property and putting on the exact amount it needs, right when it needs it, and that reduces runoff,” says Lewis. As for what goes into Sunday’s fertilizer, he says the company uses recycled produce, molasses, seaweed extract, iron, urea, potassium acetate, and several other ingredients listed on its website. Now the company is launching an organic herbicidal soap, which it sees as a competitor to Roundup.
Americans use 70 million pounds of pesticides every year to maintain their lawns, according to the New York Audubon Society. Those pesticides can leach into waterways and even human bodies. Last year, Cornell University published a study that revealed pesticide residues were found inside homes. The chemicals accumulate in dust, according to the study, and take a longer time to degrade because they’re sheltered from sun, rain, and other elements that might normally break them down outside. “Numerous health problems occur from exposure to pesticides, such as cancer, birth defects, leukemia, and ocular [vision-related] toxicity, among a number of other health issues,” researcher Joseph Laquatra said at the time. “Households with crawling toddlers should be concerned, as toddlers will accumulate pesticide residues on their hands and then ingest them due to hand-to-mouth behaviors.”
Nothing has made the potential danger more top of mind than several lawsuit settlements that Bayer, Monsanto’s parent company, has paid out to long-time Roundup customers that developed cancer. The most headline-grabbing among them was a May settlement where jurors ruled that Bayer would have to pay $55 million in compensatory damages and $2 billion in punitive damages to a couple who had been using the product for decades. An intervening judge is attempting to reduce those punitive damages, saying the award amount is unprecedented.
However, in 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate, the leading chemical in Roundup and other pesticides, as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” There have been several studies that discuss the connection between glyphosate-based herbicides and cancer. Most recently, a study published this year said exposure to glyphosate raises the risk for lymphoma by 41%. Several municipalities around the world have rules restricting and in some cases banning glyphosate. Certain localities in the U.S., such as Los Angeles, are also starting to ban glyphosate.
These concerns present an opportunity for Sunday. “As we see more cities banning pesticide use across the U.S. and stories related to products like Roundup causing cancer, we’re confident that consumers will want an alternative to the traditional pesticides and toxic chemicals currently being used on their lawns,” says Jordan Nof, managing partner at Tusk Ventures.