It’s probably only appropriate that I was listening to Fema Kuti, musician and son of Afrobeat founder and political activist Fela Kuti who sought to use music to hold governments accountable, when I came across an announcement for who will be the NU Board of Regents Chairman for 2020.
Jim Pillen, District 3 representative and former vice chairman of the Board, was recently elected to the position of chair. His accomplishments in the community are boasted by the university, holding volunteer roles with the Columbus Family YMCA, Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, Archdiocese Ignite the Faith campaign, TeamMates mentoring program, and the Columbus Community Hospital.
He serves on other boards, including for Nebraska Medicine, TeamMates Mentoring Foundation, Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Aksarben Foundation.
Other organizations he is a member of include Amherst Public School Board and the Nebraska Youth Institute. He has even been honored as Farmer of the Year by the Kearney Kiwanis club.
While those showcase Pillen as a community steward, what caught my attention is his role as an agri-businessman. Pillen, in 1993, created Pillen Family Farms, which produces enough pork to feed the needs of 9 million people annually.
For the past two years, I have been researching the effects on local water bodies by Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in Nebraska, specifically in regards to the Costco poultry processing plant that is being built just west of Omaha in Fremont. CAFOs are the largest category of livestock operations.
The U.S. EPA classifies swine CAFOs as small, medium, or large. According to Pillen’s company website, in 1994 he opened up his first farm holding over 5,000 sows (adult female pigs), exceeding the 2,500 count that the U.S. EPA classifies as large. As of 2005, his operations oversaw 55,000 sows with their young, and there is no indication that they haven’t grown further. That his company last year topped 1,000 employees for the first time is evidence to the contrary.
These operations are not sustainable, and result in horrific degradation of waterways, not to mention the cruelty toward animals they are renowned for as explained by Lincoln author Ted Genoways in his book “The Chain.”
Universities should be places where facts and inquisitiveness reign, and where agendas should not be driven by those with conflicts of interest in a primary field of research occurring within the university system.
As we move into 2020, and environmental issues such as climate change and clean water remain at the forefront of public consciousness, and when our university seeks to embody sustainable initiatives, I urge my fellow students to ask themselves if they truly know who is leading that direction, and what the implications might be for their educations and the future opportunities they are being prepared for when people like Pillen oversee it.